North Carolina lawmakers have rushed through a lot of high profile and controversial legislation in recent years, often with little or no opportunity for the public to be informed (much less comment) on the proposals under consideration.
Today, one of the state’s leading good government watchdogs called them on it. This is from a press release distributed by advocates at Common Cause North Carolina at a press conference that took place at the state Legislative Building this morning:
Common Cause Files “Right to Instruct Their Representatives” Lawsuit Challenging the Constitutionality of the NCGA’s Fourth Extra Session in December 2016
RALEIGH—Common Cause NC and 10 North Carolina citizens today filed suit in Wake County Superior Court challenging the constitutionality of the process that the General Assembly used to enact sweeping legislation by a hastily convened special session in December 2016.
At the heart of the challenge is a violation of citizens’ constitutional right to “instruct their representatives” — a right expressly guaranteed by Article I, Section 12 of the North Carolina Constitution.
“In December 2016, the General Assembly — with no notice to the public — convened a special session, cut off debate, and rushed through legislation that changed the fundamental structure of state government,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of the nonpartisan Common Cause NC. “The right of the people ‘to instruct their representatives’ is meaningless if they have no notice and no opportunity to be heard.”
The release goes on to explain that Common Cause and the individual plaintiffs from around the state are asking the court to declare the General Assembly’s fourth extra session of 2016 (which took place December 14-16) unconstitutional and void the two bills passed during the session (Senate Bill 4, which changed the structure of state and county boards of elections and the State Ethics Commission, created partisan appellate judicial elections, and stripped the newly elected governor of the power to administer the Industrial Commission and House Bill 17, which curtailed the governor’s appointive powers and transferred power from the State Board of Education to the Superintendent of Public Instruction).
The court complaint (which is a fascinating read) puts it this way:
“The lack of advance notice to the public about the Fourth Extra Session and the sharply abbreviated legislative process denied plaintiffs and other interested citizens any meaningful opportunity to communicate with the ir representatives bout the potential effect of the bills, in violation of plaintiffs’ right under Article I, Section 12 of the North Carolina Constitution to ‘instruct their representatives….’
There was no emergency requiring the Fourth Extra Session, and no circumstances justified the lack of notice and the lack of opportunity for citizens to instruct their representatives….
Seeking to restrict public scrutiny, participation and debate, Defendants concealed from the public and the media the contents of House Bill 17 and Senate Bill 4 before convening the Fourth Extra Session.”
The lawsuit is, by the plaintiffs’ admission, a groundbreaking effort. The courts have not previously taken action to invalidate a legislative session in recent memory based on an abuse of process. As the old saying foes, however, “there’s a first time for everything.” Let’s hope this lawsuit brings about such an event.