RALEIGH — North Carolina Republican legislative leaders have replaced state government attorneys with a private lawyer to defend them in litigation challenging the rules on when felony offenders can get their voting rights restored.
A judicial panel plans to issue an order soon that says anyone convicted of a felony can register to vote after they’ve completed their prison sentence or if they received no time behind bars. State law on the books for nearly 50 years has required the offender to complete all punishments, including probation, parole or community supervision, before being able to register and cast ballots.
Republican House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger — both lawsuit defendants — want to appeal the order, which could allow up to roughly 56,000 more people to register and vote starting this fall.
A state Department of Justice attorney has represented the GOP leaders in the lawsuit. The department, led by Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein, won’t commit to appealing the written order until lawyers review it, officials from his office and the legislature said.
That wasn’t good enough for Berger and Moore, whose top legal aides called it a poor excuse given “there is no secret what the court’s ruling will say.”
“The department has left the General Assembly with no option but to seek private counsel to protect its rights,” the aides wrote to top department attorneys late Monday, adding that the failure to commit “is flatly unacceptable to a client you are duty-bound to represent.”
The aides, Josh Yost and Sam Hayes, wrote that legislative leaders have final decision-making authority on how a law challenged on constitutional grounds is defended in court.
Stein spokesperson Nazneen Ahmed wrote in an email that state attorneys worked “diligently” for the past year on the state’s behalf.
“We would have continued to do so — but only within the confines of the law, which requires a written order for an appeal,” Ahmed said. “Without a written order, our office was unable to commit to future legal strategy.”
The General Assembly hired David Thompson, a Washington-based attorney who is also defending Moore and Berger in a pending state voter-identification lawsuit in state court.
Stein and legislative leaders have differed in the past over the department’s representation in litigation. GOP lawmakers also criticized Stein for reaching a settlement that extended the grace period for mail-in ballots in last November’s election without their input.
The State Board of Elections is also a defendant in the voting rights restoration litigation. The board has made no decision about whether to appeal the upcoming order, spokesperson Pat Gannon said. But board officials said Monday that county boards must immediately begin to permit these felony offenders affected by the decision to register.