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Lawsuits Target GOP Amendment Referendums, Candidate Label

File photo of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper. The governor addressed the Emerging Issues Forum on Monday, Feb. 5, 2018 at North Carolina State University.
Ben McKeown

Updated 3:25 p.m.

North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and other opponents of legislative Republicans filed a flurry of late-hour lawsuits Monday to block referendums on constitutional amendments and to let a Supreme Court candidate disclose his party affiliation on ballots.

The lawsuits filed in state court against GOP legislative leaders mark yet another round of litigation in the power struggle pitting Cooper and his allies against the GOP-dominated General Assembly that began when Cooper was narrowly elected governor in late 2016.

Since then Republican legislators have passed legislation in the closely-divided state that reduced Cooper's powers and retooled the state's judicial branch. Spokesmen for GOP House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger described the lawsuits challenging the amendment referendums as last-ditch and absurd efforts to prevent the people from deciding on what their constitution says.

Trial judges scheduled hearings late Monday and Tuesday on requests by the plaintiffs for quick action. Time is fleeting — state election officials say they must finalize the composition of ballots for this fall's elections later this week.

The legislature agreed in June to submit to voters this fall six constitutional amendments for consideration. And Republicans over the weekend overrode Cooper's veto of a bill that prevents Supreme Court candidate Chris Anglin, until recently a Democrat, from having his new Republican designation on the ballot. Anglin's lack of affiliation could help a sitting Republican justice seeking re-election.

Cooper sued Monday to block voting on one constitutional amendment changing how vacant judgeships are filled and another that resets the division of powers between the executive and legislative branches on appointing members to boards and commissions. The amendments, if approved, would swing the pendulum from Cooper and future governors and toward the legislature.

Constitutional amendments are exempt from Cooper's veto stamp. But Cooper's attorneys contend the questions on the ballots are so "false and misleading" as to what the amendments would actually do as to be unconstitutional.

The questions are part of a scheme to "eliminate the separation of powers, usurp the governor's executive authority and seize control of the appointment of every member of virtually every board and commission in all three branches of state government," Charlotte attorney John Wester wrote in Cooper's lawsuit.

The North Carolina NAACP and Clean Air Carolina, an environmental group, sued to stop the two amendments Cooper is targeting, plus a third that would mandate photo identification to vote in person and a fourth that would lower the maximum income tax rate legislators could set from 10 percent to 7 percent.

The NAACP and Clean Air Carolina says referendums must be canceled because the current version of the legislature is "unconstitutionally constituted" through district maps found by federal courts to be illegal racial gerrymanders.

The General Assembly "is irredeemably tainted," the groups' lawyers wrote. "This illegal body may not be allowed to alter our state constitution in ways designed to further entrench its power at the expense of popular sovereignty."

Berger spokesman Bill D'Elia said Cooper and Democratic activists "waited five weeks to file these absurd lawsuits, which assume that voters aren't smart enough to understand the amendments being placed before them."

Anglin sued Monday to halt enforcement of a new law that would leave his Republican affiliation off the ballot because he was a registered Democrat three weeks before filing as a candidate in late June.

Anglin is running against Republican Justice Barbara Jackson and Democratic candidate Anita Earls. Jackson and Earls will have their party affiliations next to their names. While the law would affect four judicial candidates — a District Court candidate filed a similar lawsuit Monday — the change clearly targets Anglin.

"Even children understand that you don't change the rules in the middle of the game, especially in an election," Anglin told reporters at the Wake County courthouse when filing his lawsuit.

Republicans say the law is necessary to prevent candidates from masquerading being from another political party. Those who sued are "trying to mislead voters and nefariously sway the outcome of key elections," Moore spokesman Joseph Kyzer said in an email.

Anglin said he's not a Democratic plant in the race, but his campaign spokesman is well-connected in Democratic politics. His lawyer in Monday's lawsuit tweeted out support for Earls in April.

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