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The high cost of defending the conservative agenda

The state legislature has set aside $8 million to defend lawsuits challenging the litany of controversial laws passed by the Republican majority in recent years, according to the Associated Press.

The litigation list is long and includes several state and federal actions seeking a rejection of voting maps adopted in 2011 and a reversal of voting law changes enacted in 2013, as well as challenges to the state’s same-sex marriage ban, the private school voucher program and the “Choose Life” license plate offering.

Funds for litigation costs go to private counsel retained to represent state officials in court, typically the job of the Attorney General. In some instances though, Attorney General Roy Cooper has declined to represent the state in cases which his office has determined are indefensible.  For example, after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled that a Virginia gay marriage ban violated the U.S. Constitution, Cooper stated that his office would no longer defend the similar North Carolina ban in court. It was time to stop fighting court battles the state could not win, he said at the time.

In other instances, Republican lawmakers have retained private counsel even while Cooper was likewise defending the state, voicing concerns that he wouldn’t adequately represent their interests.

The primary beneficiary of the General Assembly’s largess has been the Raleigh office of Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart, with attorneys from that firm representing state officials in several lawsuits, including the voting rights and redistricting cases. That’s the same firm that also advised Republican leaders during the drafting of the 2011 redistricting plan.

Outside bills since summer 2014 alone exceeded $3 million, according to the AP — $2.9 million of that incurred by Ogletree Deakins to defend the voting rights cases.

Those cases are far from over, as dispositive rulings from the federal district courts remain pending and appeals to the Fourth Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court are likely to follow. The same is true for the redistricting cases in state and federal courts, and new lawsuits challenging other controversial laws are on the horizon.

As the AP points out, a challenge to the state’s “magistrate recusal” law, which allows magistrates to opt out of performing marriages based upon a “sincerely held religious objection” to gay marriage, could be filed in the coming months.

According to Roy Cooper’s office,  the Attorney General has defended state laws in at least 15 cases and didn’t need the help of costly outside counsel.

“Our office hasn’t requested that the General Assembly hire any of the private lawyers they’ve been paying, and we think it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars to pay outside lawyers to do the work we’re already doing,” Cooper’s spokesperson Noelle Talley said in a statement.

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