Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Trump nominates Charlotte attorney to federal judgeship in western NC

Ken Bell

President Donald Trump has nominated a former federal prosecutor and current Charlotte-area attorney to fill a judicial vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina.

Kenneth Bell is a partner at the Charlotte office of McGuireWoods, which has locations across the world. He practices in the area of government investigations and white collar litigation, according to his online profile.

“I am deeply honored that President Trump has nominated me to serve the people of the Western District of North Carolina, and I am grateful to Senators Burr and Tillis for recommending me to the president,” he said in an email Tuesday.

The judicial seat in the Western District became vacant at the end of August when Judge Richard Voorhees took senior status on the court, a form of semi-retirement.

Trump announced Bell’s nomination Tuesday:

If confirmed, Kenneth D. Bell of North Carolina will serve as a District Judge on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina. Ken Bell is a partner in the Charlotte office of McGuireWoods LLP, where he represents clients on a variety of matters involving white collar crimes and business-related investigations. For the past five and a half years, he has served as the Federal court-appointed receiver over the largest Ponzi scheme in history as measured by number of victims (more than 800,000). Prior to joining McGuireWoods, Mr. Bell was a partner at Hunton & Williams LLP and Mayer Brown LLP. Previously, he served for ten years as first assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, and for eight years as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina. In 2003, Mr. Bell received the Attorney General’s John Marshall Award for Trial of Litigation after securing the first conviction for material support to a terrorist organization against the leader of a Hezbollah cell operating in Charlotte. Mr. Bell earned his B.A. from Wake Forest University and his J.D. from the Wake Forest University School of Law.

Bell was the Republican Nominee in 1990 for the U.S. House of Representatives, North Carolina Fifth Congressional District. A 2015 Business NC article states he washed his hands of politics after losing that bid for office.

Most of the publicity about Bell, who grew up in Winston-Salem, centers on his work as a receiver in the ZeekRewards case, a defunct Ponzi scheme. As a receiver, Bell is tasked with marshaling and preserving ZeekRewards assets.

The Winston-Salem Journal reported in March that as of Dec. 31, Bell had recovered $371.2 million and disbursed $344.7 million to eligible victims in the ZeekRewards case.

This is Trump’s second federal judicial nominee to the North Carolina bench. He nominated Thomas Farr, a well-known Republican Party attorney, to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina — which has the nation’s longest running federal judicial vacancy.

Farr’s nomination has been vehemently opposed by Democrats and court advocates and is still pending.

Courts & the Law, News

Cooper loses two latest court bids in power battle with GOP legislators

Gov. Roy Cooper has lost two of the latest courtroom battles for power with the GOP-led legislature.

Two members of a three-judge panel agreed that lawmakers had the authority to reduce the state Court of Appeals from 15 judges to 12 and to require the Governor to include private school voucher funding in his recommended budget, according to a decision released Monday. You can read more about the arguments in the case here.

The concurring judges were Jay Hockenbury, a registered Republican serving New Hanover County, and Nathaniel Poovey, a registered Republican serving Catawba County. Judge Henry Hight, a registered Democrat who serves Franklin, Granville, Vance, and Warren counties, dissented.

However, Hight later ruled against the Governor in a separate court challenge (that was part of the same lawsuit) over whether he or the legislature should control millions of dollars from federal block grants and a Volkswagen settlement. You can read more about that April 4 hearing here. His decision also was released Monday.

Cooper’s office did not immediately respond to a request about whether or not he planned to appeal the two rulings. Legislative leaders took to Twitter to pat themselves on the back and urge Cooper to “abandon these self-serving lawsuits.”

The two branches of government have been battling each other for power since former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory lost his bid for reelection to Cooper, a Democrat. Cooper sued lawmakers over several measures they passed restricting his authority once in office.

The lawsuit involving the two most recent rulings, Cooper v. Berger, is being heard and decided piecemeal. You can read the rulings below.

Cooper v. Berger_17 CVS 6465_Judgment From 2.9.18 Hearing by NC Policy Watch on Scribd

Cooper v. Berger_17 CVS 6465_Judgment From 4.4.18 Hearing by NC Policy Watch on Scribd

Courts & the Law, News

New York Times takes on partisan state court attacks

The New York Times’ Editorial Board published a piece Sunday taking lawmakers to task in states where partisan attacks on state courts are being leveraged.

The opinion article cited specific examples Wisconsin, Kansas, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, Republican legislators in North Carolina, who recently gerrymandered themselves into a veto-proof majority, have taken repeated aim at the state courts. On party-line votes, they reduced the size of the state’s midlevel appeals court, preventing Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat elected in 2016, from filling seats. They required judicial candidates running at all levels to identify themselves by partisan affiliation. They tried, and failed, to expand the state’s Supreme Court right before Mr. Cooper took office, in the hope of slipping a few extra appointments into the hands of the departing Republican governor, Pat McCrory. In a special session next month, they will attempt to gerrymander trial-court districts in favor of Republicans and to cut judicial terms from eight years to two. As one lawmaker justified it, “If you’re going to act like a legislator, perhaps you should run like one.”

The Editorial Board describes such bills as “terrible for the judiciary and harmful to democracy.” They also noted that even if bills aren’t passed, the message and publicity generated signal real consequences — especially for judges issuing what’s perceived as controversial or unpopular rulings.

The article also examines judicial elections and the public perception of the judiciary.

But no matter how judges get on the bench, the important thing is to keep them as insulated as possible from outside political pressures. Instead, many lawmakers in recent years have been doing the opposite, treating judges like political pawns who are, or should be, more beholden to a partisan platform or public pressure than to the law. For those lawmakers to then complain about judges acting like legislators is rich.

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Forgot about judicial redistricting? Don’t worry, it will be back next week

Judicial redistricting and reform seemed to gain a lot of steam during the legislative session earlier this year, but things came to a grinding halt after lawmakers released an eighth and ninth set of maps just before heading home.

Those maps, released in February, redraw prosecutorial, district and superior court districts, which would change the way judges and district attorneys would be elected across the state. The maps were never discussed, and they were dubbed “Option B” and “Option C” — “Option A” was released two weeks prior.

The Joint Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting is set to meet at 1 p.m. Wednesday, and while a public agenda has yet to be released, it’s likely members will address the new proposed maps.

It’s also possible, however — given lawmakers’ track record when it comes to judicial redistricting — that they could unveil totally new maps at the meeting.

None of the committee co-chairs – Representatives Justin Burr (R-Stanly, Montgomery) and David Lewis (R-Harnett) and Senators Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg), Warren Daniel (R-Burke, Cleveland) and Bill Rabon (Bladen) – returned an email this week asking about what would be discussed at the meeting.

NC Policy Watch has analyzed all three of the most recently proposed maps, Options A, B and C. You can read about those maps’ legislative and judicial impact here and here.

Another potential judicial reform that could be discussed at the meeting is a merit selection plan that would replace judicial elections with a nomination and appointment process.

The meeting is open to the public and will be held in room 643 of the Legislative Office Building. You can stream audio from the meeting here.

The short legislative session this year starts May 16. Lawmakers have said they plan to take up and possibly vote on judicial redistricting and reform proposals.

Courts & the Law, News

Cooper, legislature battle in court over who controls millions in federal, VW funds

Attorneys for Gov. Roy Cooper and the legislature were back in court Wednesday — this time to battle over who controls federal block grant funds and the money distributed from a Volkswagen settlement.

There are three federal block grants in particular that Cooper argues he is responsible for spending — a substance abuse prevention and treatment block grant, a maternal and child health block grant and a community development block grant. Federal funds for those grants total more than $107 million per fiscal year, according to the state budget.

Martin Warf, an attorney who represents Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, contends that the funds from those grants go through the state treasury and can be appropriated by the legislature per the state budget act.

Cooper’s attorney Jim Phillips argues that state law determining whether the legislative or executive branch is in charge of federal block grants has not been settled.

“Just because funds are in a bank account maintained by the state treasurer, that does not mean the funds belong to the state,” he added.

In a separate but similar issue, Phillips said the governor has been charged as the agent of the state with regard to funds from the Volkswagen settlement, which totals about $92 million. There was a certification form, he said, signed and submitted by Cooper that dictates his role with regard to spending.

“The General Assembly, despite the fact they are not contemplated in the federal court decree, stepped forward and took control of these custodial funds,” Phillips said. “Control of these custodial funds are beyond the legislature’s domain.”

All of the funds at the center of this battle must be used for specific and limited purposes no matter who controls them.

Cooper’s arguments center on his power to execute the federal laws associated with the custodial funds, but Warf said there is a difference between executing the law and following the law.

Following the law would mean that the legislature has the power to appropriate the funds in question, Warf added.

Superior Court Judge Henry Hight said he expected to make a decision in the case by Friday evening.

The complaints are part of a larger lawsuit over a power battle between Cooper and the legislature that is being heard piecemeal by different judges.