After Amendment Ruling, GOP Plans Special Session

Aug 23, 2018

Senator Phil Berger
Credit Dave DeWitt

Stymied by a court that ruled their ballot questions misleading, North Carolina Republican lawmakers are preparing for a special session to replace two proposed constitutional amendments that, if approved by voters, would shift key executive powers to the legislature.

House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger laid out a schedule Thursday whereby the General Assembly would be called in to begin Friday. The House would vote Friday on two new amendments, followed by the Senate on Monday.

The planned special session is in response to a ruling by a panel of state judges Tuesday that found questions for two of the six amendments don't fairly and impartially describe the proposed alterations facing voters. The judges sided with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the state NAACP, both of which sued separately to stop those referendums, which lawmakers approved in June.

The stakes are significant for these amendments in the ongoing power struggle between Cooper and the GOP-dominated General Assembly on the cusp of the fall elections, where energized Democrats seek to end Republican veto-proof majorities.

One amendment would take from governors the power to file nearly all judicial vacancies. The second would cut Cooper out of making appointments to the state elections and ethics board and ultimately over scores of state boards and commissions. Cooper and other Democrats call the amendments a brazen power grab. Republicans argue they'll promote transparency in filling judgeships and rebalance government powers following recent state Supreme Court cases.

Motions to appeal Tuesday's ruling were quickly filed, but GOP legislators contend new legislation would help amendments on these topics remain on the ballots and diffuse the court case. Time for those appeals is dwindling, as ballots also must be finalized within days so that they can be provided to absentee voter no later than Sept. 22.

"We hope this will end the unnecessary litigation and allow our state to move forward with the democratic process to let the people decide these issues for themselves," Moore said in a release. It wasn't clear whether Republicans would attempt to rewrite the ballot questions, the actual amendments — or both.

The legislature can't call itself back into session unless there are a certain number of signatures from legislators seeking one. The number of GOP lawmakers in each chamber exceeds the mandated thresholds — 72 in the House and 30 in the Senate — if they sign up. A formal proclamation had not been issued by Moore and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, the Senate's presiding officer, by Thursday afternoon.

The session comes even after all five living ex-governors — three Democrats and two Republicans — gathered last week to urge voters defeat the two amendments if they remained on the ballot, saying it would wrench away gubernatorial powers and its checks on the legislature and judiciary. The former governors also filed a legal brief favoring Cooper.

On Thursday, six former chief justices led a bipartisan group of attorneys that also urged their defeat, saying if approved they "would strike a severe blow to our most cherished principles of balanced government."

The judicial vacancies amendment would force a governor to appoint a judge from at least two nominees agreed to by the legislature. The nominees would have to come from a pool deemed qualified by a "nonpartisan judicial merit" commission. The majority on the three-judge panel also identified amendment language that could potentially diminish the governor's veto powers.

The second amendment would give the legislature appointment powers over the state elections board and state that the legislature controls the appointments and duties of any board or commission it creates.

The session isn't likely to address the other four amendments legislators placed on the ballot. Those would mandate photo identification to vote in person, lower the maximum income tax rate allowed from 10 percent to 7 percent, expand the rights of crime victims and create a right to hunt and fish.