Commentary, Trump Administration

Activists call on Tillis to speak up, demand investigation of Trump-Russia ties

For several weeks now, a sizable group of activists have been gathering on a weekly basis outside the Raleigh office of North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis to demand that Congress provide a check to the extremist policies of a president for whom more and more basic questions of legitimacy continue to arise. Today 50 or so demonstrators renewed their efforts with a special focus on Trump’s Russia ties and the need for a thorough and independent investigation before any major presidential initiatives can be  allowed to proceed.

Demonstrators were especially adamant today that the Senate should not take up the nomination of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch for a lifetime appointment so long as basic question remain unanswered about Trump’s possible illegal — even treasonous — relationship with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. Demonstrators repeatedly chanted “No confirmation without investigation!”

At the conclusion of today’s event, the group delivered an open letter to Tillis that read as follows:

Dear Senator Tillis,

We have been coming to your office every week for ten weeks. It is not always the same people, and while various organizations and churches are represented, there is no official group. Last week there were 75 people including physicians and clergy. We come because we feel our very democracy is in danger, and the extremist policies of this administration are already hurting our most vulnerable neighbors.

At the same time, it is becoming very clear that something sinister is being played out, and it seems very probable that a foreign power actually put the President in the white house and is now controlling him.

Today we come to specifically ask you to use whatever power you have to demand an immediate, nonpartisan investigation into the Russian role in the election and in the current administration. Read more

Courts & the Law, News

Judge helping with caseload of unfilled judicial vacancy in eastern NC set to retire at end of March

There was already a judicial emergency in the federal courts in eastern North Carolina, but things just got a little more dire.

Judge James C. Fox submitted his letter of resignation Monday to the Federal Bar. He was one of three senior judges helping to manage the heavy caseload of a judicial vacancy in the U.S. District Court.

I have enjoyed the humbling honor of serving for over thirty-five years as a federal district judge for the Eastern District of North Carolina. I cannot imagine a finer, more rewarding career. I have been supported by the brightest and most dedicated office staff, law clerks, Clerk’s Office personnel, United States Probation Officers, Deputy United States Marshals and Court Security Officers. It has been an honor to serve alongside my esteemed colleagues on the Federal bench, and to work with hundreds of the most brilliant and zealous lawyers in the country.

My first priority always has been my family, but closely on its heels follows my commitment to duty, excellence and fairness in the administration of justice in the Eastern District of North Carolina. I cannot stress strongly enough what pleasure and professional satisfaction I have enjoyed.

The 88-year judge will retire March 31. You can read his full letter here.

The open seat on the court that Fox was helping out with is the the longest unfilled federal vacancy in the nation. Former President Barack Obama nominated two different women to fill the vacancy and N.C. Sen. Richard Burr blocked both nominations.

It’s now up to President Donald Trump to nominate an individual to fill the vacancy.

HB2, News

House Republican compares economic losses of abbreviated school summer breaks to HB2

Rep. Frank Iler, R-Brunswick

House Bill 389, a bipartisan measure that would test school calendar flexibility for up to 20 counties in North Carolina, may not include Rep. Frank Iler‘s Brunswick County district.

But the coastal North Carolina Republican is still fired up over the state House Education Committee‘s approval Tuesday of a proposed pilot program that would assess the academic impacts of shorter summer breaks in a smattering of low-income and rural counties across the state.

Iler said he believes the economic impacts on the state’s tourism industry would “dwarf” the losses of the state’s mega-controversial, anti-LGBT legislation HB2, which the Associated Press pegged this week at an estimated $3.76 billion.

“I hope we’ll think long and hard before putting 20 counties in a program like this,” said Iler, moments before most House legislators on the committee signed off on the measure.

Iler’s comments echoed a long-running debate in North Carolina over summer breaks. Since 2004, the state has mandated start and end times for local districts, after tourism and parents groups complained of dwindling summer breaks.

Yet, with researchers suggesting shortened breaks could speed performance gains in students, particularly low-income students, some K-12 advocates from both parties have been urging state lawmakers to back local flexibility.

And while a February report from the legislature’s nonpartisan Performance Evaluation Division bypassed recommendations for all of the state’s counties, the agency did suggest lawmakers review the proposal for low-performing districts.

Rep. Linda Johnson, a Cabarrus County Republican who co-sponsored the bill, said the three-year pilot program could help shed some light on the lingering debate.

“What we don’t have is data to tell us who is right and who is wrong,” said Johnson. “This bill will help us tell who is right and who is wrong.”

The program would begin as soon as 2018-2019 and would require annual state reports on the academic impacts, although lawmakers acknowledged the draft bill, even if it’s approved by the full House, could run into roadblocks in the state Senate.

Read more

Courts & the Law, News

ICYMI: Mecklenburg District judges speak out against lawmakers’ effort to subdivide court districts

District Court judges in Mecklenburg County held a press conference before court earlier this week to speak out against Senate Bill 306.

The bill was introduced earlier this month and seeks to subdivide Mecklenburg County District Courts to mirror Superior Courts. It is sponsored by Mecklenburg Republicans, Sen. Jeff Tarte and Sen. Dan Bishop.

WBTV covered the press conference, at which the Mecklenburg County judges said the bill would change the way they are elected.

Currently, the judges have county-wide elections. But the bill would subdivide the county into districts and have judges run in the judges where they live.

“This would essentially take away the right of citizens like me in Mecklenburg County to vote for 2/3rd of the judges who sit in this county,” said Judge Regan Miller.

Tarte said in the article that he believes the bill will help voters get to better know judicial candidates, since there will be less per subdivided county.

Opponents argue the bill is a way to get more Republicans elected to the bench. A large population of the current judges there are affiliated with the Democratic party.

WBTV reported that the District Court judges say the bill could lead to an imbalance on the district court bench.

“Over the past 15 years county-wide, non-partisan elections have produced a district court bench in Mecklenburg County that is evenly split between male and female judges, white and black judges. And there is even diversity in respect to geography. Now, this is a model for diversity that we as a county should be proud of,” Judge Miller said. “With respect to party diversity, judges who are registered as republicans in this county have demonstrated that they can win election and re-election to their seats when voters are simply allowed to concentrate on the levels of their intelligence, education, experience, integrity, compassion and reverence for the rule of law.”

Judge Miller said the current bill “will do little to improve the geographical diversity of the bench and will only prevent more judges from moving closer to their place of work.” He said currently six district court judges live in each of two districts, and eight live in one district.

Judges say they’re concerned the legislature is infringing on judicial independence.

You can read the full article here.

Check the NC Policy Watch website next week for a deeper dive into SB 306.

Environment, Trump Administration

Taking the fun out of Superfund: What’s at stake when Trump and Company gut the EPA

In the mountains, near the Pisgah Forest, and small-town neighborhoods. In cities, like Raleigh, and military bases, such as Camp Lejeune. Throughout North Carolina,  39 Superfund sites are polluted with dry cleaning solvents, mining tailings, wood preservatives and chemicals that have long been outlawed such as DDT and PCBs.

These sites are in varying stages of clean up, but they all have certain characteristics in common: They are highly contaminated. The clean up costs total in the millions of dollars. And often the companies responsible for the contamination can’t be found, are dodging accountability or have gone bankrupt.

Since 1980, the EPA’s Superfund program has helped states and contractors connect residents to drinking water, to contain groundwater plumes, to excavate millions of tons of contaminated soil. For sure, the Superfund program is imperfect. It moves too slowly. It doesn’t always adequately remediate the sites. Communities often disagree with the agency’s cleanup methods. A lack of funding is part of the problem — a problem that, if President Trump gets his way, will get even worse.

President Trump’s proposed budget cuts the EPA’s Superfund account by $330 million — about a third. These sharp decreases are part of Trump’s overall gutting of the agency, which he has (falsely) accused of implementing and enforcing “job-killing regulations.”

These funding cuts means fewer sites nationwide will be cleaned up, leaving contamination to fester or expand beyond its source. (And notably, there are jobs associated with remediating these projects.) The identification of new sites will be curtailed. Polluters will be able to walk away from their messes, in some cases with impunity.

Polluters will be able to walk away from their messes, in some cases with impunity Click To Tweet

Some communities in North Carolina are burdened with more than one Superfund project — not including other hazardous waste sites operated by the state. North Belmont, for example, has two Superfund sites, as do Aberdeen and Fayetteville. The Wilmington area, including the historic African-American community of Navassa, has five.

Through settlement agreements, the EPA often extracts funds from what are known as “potentially responsible parties.” Recently, the EPA reached a $610,000 settlement with Domtar Paper for its role in contributing to contamination at the 11-acre Ward Transformer Superfund site in Raleigh. This agreement is in addition to a $5.5 million settlement between 173 companies and the EPA that was announced last September.

For more than 20 years, PCB-tainted oil leaked from Ward Transformer, contaminating downstream waterways — Lake Crabtree, Crabtree Creek, Brier Creek Reservoir and parts of the Neuse River, which all have fish advisories. Even $6 million won’t cover all of the clean up costs. And no amount of money can undo the harm that will linger downstream for decades.

The public can comment on the terms of the agreement with Domtar through April 24. U.S. Mail: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Superfund Division, Attn: Paula V. Painter, 61 Forsyth Street SW., Atlanta, Georgia 30303 or via email at Painter.Paula@epa.gov .