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.



voteKentucky governor Steve Beshear announced today that he would be ordering the restoration of voting rights to some 170,000 non-violent ex-felons who have completed their sentences, a step that would bring that state in line with others offering the same reinstatement.

Kentucky had been one of the last states still permanently barring convicted felons from voting, along with Florida and Iowa. Kentucky’s constitution did provide for a restoration of voting rights upon the intervention of the state’s governor though.

As the Brennan Center for Justice points out, there has been significant movement towards restoring felons’ voting rights, with more than 20 states taking steps in that direction over the past 20 years:

One key factor in this progress is the growing bipartisan consensus on the need for criminal justice reform, and the recognition that restoring voting rights is a smart-on-crime policy. Leaders of both parties are acknowledging that we imprison too many people for too long, and do not provide adequate opportunities for people to reintegrate into society — rather than recidivate — after they leave incarceration. That recognition has led law enforcement professionals, faith leaders, and public officials from across the political spectrum to endorse voting rights restoration proposals nationwide.

In North Carolina,  a felon’s voting rights can be restored upon completion of a sentence, including prison, parole, and probation.

“We’re seeing growing national momentum for rights restoration, and Kentucky is the latest place to join in on that trend,” Brennan Center Counsel Tomas Lopez said in a statement. “Restoring the right to vote will improve Kentucky’s democracy, strengthen its communities, and increase public safety. We hope the state will build on today’s reforms and make the right to vote accessible to all Kentucky citizens living and working in their communities.”


North Carolinians believe that wealthy individuals and white people receive better treatment by the state courts than do black residents, Hispanics, low-income defendants or those without a lawyer, according to a recent Elon University Poll surveying registered voters about their political opinions and views of the state court system.

“The public in North Carolina have high levels of confidence in the local police force and generally believe most people receive fair outcomes in our court system,” said Kenneth Fernandez, an assistant professor at Elon and director of the poll.

“However, when asked specifically about how blacks, Hispanics, non-English speaking and low-income people are treated, most respondents acknowledge these groups frequently receive worse treatment by the courts.”

The poll included questions suggested by the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice, an independent commission convened earlier this year by Chief Justice Mark Martin of the Supreme Court of North Carolina.

More than 80 percent said they were at least somewhat confident in their local police or sheriff’s offices, though that number dropped when minority voters responded.

And nearly 66 percent said they were at least somewhat confident in the state court system.

But more than 75 percent of those surveyed believe the state courts are influenced by politics, and almost as many believe that judges’ decision are affected by the fact that they must seek election.

“These results may reflect the fact that North Carolina had the nation’s second-highest level of campaign spending in judicial elections in 2014,” said Jason Husser, an Elon assistant professor and assistant director of the poll. “Our state trails only Michigan in how much money all candidates spent in seeking seats on the bench.”

Elon’s live callers surveyed 1,234 residents between Oct. 29 and Nov. 2, 2015. The survey had a margin of error of 2.79 percentage points for a sample of North Carolinians weighted by age, gender, race and phone use.

See the full report of the poll here.




spellings-400cYesterday in The Nation, Zoe Carpenter laid bare the many reasons people who care about higher education should be concerned about the recent naming of Margaret Spellings as president of the University of North Carolina system.

Those reasons — close ties to the deceptive and imploding for-profit college sector, former leadership of a student loan debt collection company, homophobic comments — may already be old news to state residents, but here’s some elaboration from Carpenter:

At the Department of Education, Spellings tried to bring the focus on performance metrics and accountability that drove No Child Left Behind in higher-education policy.She convened a Commission on the Future of Higher Education, whose final report referred to students as “consumers,” and lauded elements of the for-profit education industry for embracing “an aggressive, outcomes-based approach.” Ironically, it’s the for-profit industry that has failed most egregiously since then to produce positive results for students. Kaplan Higher Education, one of the companies praised in the Spellings report, was forced to refund over a million dollars to hundreds of students in January after a federal investigation into the hiring of unqualified instructors, and another$1.3 million in July.

Spellings went on to work in the troubled for-profit industry after leaving the White House—an experience, she told UNC’s board of governors, that taught her “a lot about how we can serve our students and think of them as customers in providing a product in convenient ways for them.” Beginning in 2012 she served on the board of the Apollo Group, the parent company of for-profit chain University of Phoenix. That “diploma factory” is now under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, in part for its aggressive recruiting of military veterans. Its online program has a graduation rate of just 7.3 percent, and the student loan default rate is up 5 percent from the national average.

Spellings also chaired the board of the Ceannate Corporation, a student loan–collection agency. It’s not surprising that she had connections there: During Spellings’s tenure the education department was accused of acting “as a wholly owned subsidiary” of the student-loan industry. Preying on student borrowers is lucrative business: profit margins for loan collectors average 30 percent. “Despite widespread calls to reform the student loan industry, Spellings and the Ceannate Corporation have simply profited off of it,” two UNC professors wrote in a recent op-ed. “Spellings’ defense of for-profit colleges [following her appointment] is perhaps just as disturbing as the predatory practices these institutions use to fleece students.”

Spellings has also come under fire for homophobia. She used her second day as education secretary to send a letter to the chief executive of PBS, admonishing her for a brief, unaired scene on a show called Postcards From Buster that depicted a same-sex couple. “Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in the episode,” she wrote. Spellings asked for the network to return the public funds that had been used to film it. Asked about the comments after her election to the top post at UNC, she said, “I’m not going to comment on those lifestyles.” She defended her actions, arguing that it was “a matter of how we use taxpayer dollars,” not about “any particular view” on “particular groups of people.”

Add to those yesterday’s announcement of a $102 million student loan forgiveness settlement involving Education Management Corporation — yet another connection Spellings had with the for-profit college industry.

Turns out that after leaving the White House Spellings also worked as a consultant to EDMC, and in comments at a forum for higher education leaders, defended the for-profit college world.

“We need to again use better data to make our case … to tell our story in credible ways,” Spellings was quoted by Inside Higher Ed as having told the folks gathered at that forum.

“We’re seen as wild-eyed, often profit-making, the wild west of higher education, and often don’t get credit for what we do.”


State attorneys general from North Carolina and 38 other states plus the District of Columbia today announced a $102 million student loan forgiveness settlement with Pittsburgh-based for-profit school chain Education Management Corporation.

EDMC operates 110 schools in 32 states and Canada, including Argosy University, Brown Mackie College and South University, as well as The Art Institutes, which has campuses in Raleigh and Charlotte.

Today’s settlement wraps up a multistate investigation begun in 2014 after students complained that the company’s courses were more costly than they had been led to believe, did not transfer as they had been told they would, and did not lead to the high-earning jobs promised by recruiters.

Under the settlement, 2,881 North Carolinians will have $4.1 million in student debt forgiven, according to a statement released by Attorney General Roy Cooper. The loan forgiveness benefits students who enrolled at EDMC with only limited previous college experience and quickly dropped out without gaining anything from the school other than debt. Students who enrolled in an EDMC program with fewer than 24 transfer credits and dropped out within 45 days between January 1, 2006 and December 31, 2014 will have private loans issued by the school forgiven.

The settlement also requires EDMC to change business practices. The company must give students accurate information about the total cost, average debt, default rate, job placement rate, average earnings, and ability to transfer credits associated with its programs.

“This settlement sets a new standard for for-profit colleges to give students clear, accurate disclosures about what they’ll pay, what they’ll owe, and how much they could earn,” Cooper said. 

The company separately agreed today to pay $95 million to settle a federal whistleblower lawsuit under the False Claims Act. In that case, brought by the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of the Department of Education, the government alleged that EDMC illegally paid its admissions recruiters based on the number of students they recruited.