Cooper attacks NC Chamber over judicial nominees

Gov. Roy Cooper speaks in Raleigh in 2020. Photo via N.C. Dept. of Public Safety

RALEIGH — Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday attacked the North Carolina General Assembly and NC Chamber over confirmation of nominees to judicial appointments based on race. In a letter to the NC Chamber, Cooper alleged that members of the legislature were consulting with the Chamber on judicial nominees and he had “serious concerns over the habitual failure of the North Carolina General Assembly to confirm Black nominees to various judicial or quasi-judicial roles.”

Cooper’s letter, penned to the NC Chamber’s President and CEO Gary Salamido and sent to media outlets throughout the state, reads in part, “It has been the experience of my office that the Chamber has not supported the nomination of several Black nominees to judicial and quasi-judicial roles, despite repeated requests to do so.”

The governor continued, writing, “I strongly urge you to work with your staff and members to consider the NC Chamber’s impact, intentional or not, in making North Carolina government less representative than the people it serves. I am sending a copy of this letter to your Board of Directors and members, most of whom I am sure are not aware of this problem and will want to rectify it once they are made aware of the statistics.”

The letter cites a statistic alleging that the General Assembly has confirmed 13 out of 33 Black nominees to various positions, both in and outside of the judicial system, around 39% compared to white nominees, 42 of 70 (60%).

“I ask that you confer with your staff and members, look at the facts, and reflect on the damage the NC Chamber’s actions can cause to our state’s reputation, business community and judicial system. A real change is necessary,” wrote Cooper in closing.

In a prompt response, the NC Chamber issued a statement followed by a detailed letter refuting the governor’s claims.

“On Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, the NC Chamber received a letter from Gov. Roy Cooper. Sadly, it was initially delivered to the media and then to our organization. As such, we issued a brief statement observing Gov. Cooper’s accusations to be both meritless and beneath the dignity of his office,” the Chamber said through a spokesperson. “Unfortunately, we have no choice but to now respond more fully to provide greater public clarity on how some of his nominations have been received generally and, more specifically, by the broader business community.”

In a letter to Cooper, Salamido defended the Chamber’s role in supporting or rejecting nominees based on qualifications, not race. Salamido emphasized the Chamber operates without bias and pointed out the recent confirmation of a Black nominee to the Board of Review with their backing.

He challenged the governor’s presentation of the facts surrounding the nominees’ rejections, suggesting that factors unrelated to race, such as potential conflicts of interest and legislative history, played a part.

“While we acknowledge your observation that the ‘Chamber is known to play an outsized role in supporting or rejecting the confirmation’ of some nominees, and our ‘substantial influence on the General Assembly’ – the essence of your commentary, contained in your November 17 letter, is simply misplaced,” said Salamido.

“[N]oticeably absent from your letter and observations are any acknowledgement of your role in the confirmation process, or any description of the effort or political capital you have invested to have your nominees confirmed. You also provided no context to the circumstances under which some of your nominations were submitted and the actual reasons they likely were not confirmed.”

Salamido pointed out specific examples he said were non-race-based reasons for the rejection of many of Cooper’s appointments, including non-judicial appoints like the Board of Review, a body that reviews state regulations for their adherence to state laws.

He said three rejected nominees to the Board of Review that had indicated they would not stop practicing law in private practice if they were appointed to the commission, which pays each member $148,000 per year.

According to the NC Chamber, of Cooper’s last six nominations to the Industrial Commission, two were Black, received support from the Chamber and were confirmed unanimously by the General Assembly.

Regarding Business Court appointments, which makes up a significant portion of Cooper’s initial letter, Salamido said the governor bears the failure of his nominees.

Cooper specifically cited his nomination of a political independent, military veteran for a business court seat in his letter. While he did not name her, Cooper appears to be arguing the General Assembly refused to consider his nomination of Jocelyn Mitnaul Mallette.

In his letter to Cooper, Salamido suggested, “her nomination might have still been on a pathway to success had you engaged more constructively this past legislative session to secure it.”

Salamido also referenced Cooper’s own lack of minority appointments to statewide appellate seats.

Discussing the recent resignation of Justice Mike Morgan, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in 2024, Salamido said, “It is also well-chronicled that a long-serving and highly regarded Supreme Court Justice recently resigned to seek your party’s nomination for Governor. He also happens to be Black. Not only have you swiftly endorsed his opponent, who is not Black, you also appointed a non-minority to fill his open seat on the Supreme Court,” highlighting the elevation of Allison Riggs to the state’s highest court in September.

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Matt Mercer is the editor in chief of North State Journal and can be reached at [email protected].