The judicial branch of government has no right to tell the General Assembly how quickly laws must be enacted nor can it require them to give advance public notice ahead of a legislative special session, according to a state Court of Appeals opinion released today.
The plaintiffs in Common Cause v. Forest challenged the 2016 special legislative session in which two bills were passed that fundamentally changed the balance of power between governmental branches. The session was called with no advance notice to the public, and there were 26 separate bills filed at the time, which the plaintiffs’ attorney said at the hearing was to distract from the legislation that ultimately passed.
A unanimous, bipartisan three-judge appellate panel rejected the argument that the people have a right to instruct their representatives via a time limit for public notice of a special session.
“The right protected [the right to instruct] is one of open access to the law-making process and of open communication with one’s representatives in that process,” the opinion states. “The courts have the power to defend that right. But the decision of how quickly particular laws, on particular subjects, must be enacted is a political question reserved for another branch of government.”
Judge Richard Dietz wrote the opinion, with Judges Hunter Murphy and Allegra Collins concurring. He wrote that the judicial branch has no constitutional authority to demand from the legislative branch an explanation of why a particular bill must move quickly to enactment, much less the authority to review whether that explanation is “valid.”
He also wrote the plaintiffs did not show they were denied the right to instruct their representatives.
“They have shown, at most, that their representatives chose not to listen to them,” the document states. “That may be a reason not to vote for those representatives in the future; it is not a constitutional violation.”
The bills that were passed out of the challenged special session were 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 transferred power from the state Board of Education to the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
There has already been extensive litigation over the substance of those bills rather than the special session itself.
Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause NC, said Tuesday they are considering whether to appeal the opinion to the state Supreme Court.
“There was no justifiable reason for the special legislative session that was hatched in secrecy,” he said in a news release. “It was a deliberate effort by Republican legislative leaders to keep citizens in the dark about their plans to engage in a nakedly partisan power grab.”
Read the full appellate opinion below.