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In Blow To Cooper, Judges Won't Block 2 Latest Constitutional Amendments

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

The rewritten questions that frame two proposed amendments to the North Carolina Constitution should remain on November ballots, a panel of state judges ruled Friday. The questions had been rewritten after some of the same judges blocked earlier versions of the referendums.

The three trial judges unanimously denied a motion sought by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to block the amendments. His attorneys contend the questions still don't adequately describe to the public what they'd be voting on. A quick appeal by Cooper to the state Supreme Court is now expected, perhaps later Friday, as state elections officials are up against a timeline to begin arranging and printing state ballots.

A majority on the same judicial panel last week prevented previous versions of the language approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly from going on ballots. That prompted legislators to hold a special session and submit slightly different amendments and questions.

Following a hearing and 90 minutes of closed-door deliberations by the judges, Superior Court Judge Donald Bridges announced from the bench that given the new amendments, the panel was "unable to find beyond a reasonable doubt that that language is facially unconstitutional."

In court Friday, attorneys for GOP lawmakers said the differences between Cooper and the GOP legislators are political questions, and said the judicial branch should steer clear of them.

Even so, the new referendums are clearly written, lawyer Martin Warf told the panel. He said Cooper is fighting the amendments simply because he doesn't like what they would do if voters approve them. The governor has called them the latest attempts at legislative power grabs.

The amendments would swing control over filling judicial vacancies from the governor to the legislature and give General Assembly leaders direct say over who would serve on the state elections and ethics board.

"The people of North Carolina deserve to see them," Warf said. "There's no confusing language. There is no bait and switch. There is no attempt to mislead. The people can read these ballot questions, understand them, listen to the debate about them ... and make up their minds."

Cooper's lawyers argued the latest questions still are misleading and fail to tell voters that a significant power shift from the executive and legislative branches would occur if approved.

"The question is not whether the new ballot questions are better than the old ones. The question is whether the new ballot questions are constitutional in their own right," John Wester, a private attorney for Cooper, told the judges. The new questions, Wester said, "violate the North Carolina Constitution as surely as the first ballot questions did."

The judicial vacancy amendment would require the governor to fill a judicial vacancy with someone from among at least two nominees agreed to by the legislature. Those nominees would originate from a pool of qualified candidates examined by an outside commission. Currently the governor makes a choice, in most cases, without any legislative participation.

The elections board amendment would ask voters to let the constitution establish a bipartisan eight-member elections and ethics board. While the governor would still formally appoint the members, lawmakers would direct whom the appointees were.

The state Attorney General's Office wrote this week that the matter needs to be resolved by Saturday to move the balloting process along to meet a Sept. 22 deadline for absentee ballots. The elections board said it was looking at ways to work around further delays.

Friday's legal proceedings didn't address four other amendment questions that as of now are going to be on the ballot.

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