Courts & the Law, News

Brennan Center remembers Citizens United 10 years later; urges reform

Ten years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door in Citizens United for mega-wealthy donors to infuse big money into political races across the nation.

Or, as the Brennan Center for Justice put it, the high court “slashed commonsense limits on campaign cash and set America’s campaign finance system on a path to overwhelming dominance by the ultra-wealthy few.” The non-profit at New York University released its analysis this week on House Resolution 1, the reform law that would counter Citizens United.

H.R. 1 is a public financing program that would “amplify the voices of small donors, so the flood of megadonor money can be balanced by supercharged funding from regular people.” The Brennan Center’s analysis shows it would fundamentally transform campaign financing for the better.

Since Citizens United, the share of election funding from megadonors has mushroomed: in 2016, a few donors of more than $100,000 accounted for more than half of all election spending, dwarfing the money given by millions of small donors. Even with the boom in grassroots engagement and small donations in 2018, small donors were overshadowed by megadonors. Without reform, the gap is only going to widen.

The imbalance in campaign finance has made many Americans frustrated and cynical. But while it may be easy to see the current state of money in politics as inevitable, the truth is powerful fixes are available to restore balance and empower everyday people.

Public campaign financing has succeeded in changing the way politicians raise money in states and cities across the country, from Maine to Arizona and New York City to Los Angeles. It reduces candidates’ need to chase big donors and makes typical Americans the most important source of funds. The boost that public financing gives small donors is needed now more than ever because non-millionaires simply can’t keep up with the gains at the top.

North Carolina defunded its public financing program years ago, and it subsequently led to millions in outside spending for the election of now state Supreme Court Justice Mike Morgan which shifted the court’s ideological balance to the left.

Previous Brennan Center research has shown that million-dollar campaigns for state supreme court seats were fast becoming the national norm. Dark, untraceable funds are flooding judicial races, and national political groups and business interests regularly pour money into these campaigns.

And this year isn’t expected to be any different as Republicans have a chance to win more seats and even out the ideology across the bench. There are three seats on the state Supreme Court up for election, and each race will be competitive.

Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, who was appointed to the helm earlier this year, will run against Associate Justice Paul Newby, currently the most senior on the court and the only Republican, to keep her place on the bench. North Carolina Court of Appeals Judges Lucy Inman, a registered Democrat, and Phil Berger Jr., a registered Republican, will vie for the seat Newby leaves behind.

And finally, on the high court, former lawmaker Tamara Barringer, a Republican, will challenge current Associate Justice Mark Davis, a Democrat, in his effort to stay seated after being appointed earlier this year by Gov. Roy Cooper.

H.R. 1, the For the People Act, was passed by the House congressional delegation in March 2019, and it is a comprehensive democracy reform package that would help quell big and dark money in political campaign races.

The bill includes a system of public financing for House elections that would multiply small contributions by matching donations of $200 or less at a rate of six to one, according to the Brennan Center analysis. A $200 donation would get a $1,200 match, making it worth $1,400 to the campaign. Candidates can choose to opt in if they show they have substantial public support. Those participating may not accept more than $1,000 in private funds from each donor — significantly lower than the contribution limit of $5,600 for the 2020 election cycle. And the amount of public funds each candidate can earn in an election cycle is capped.

Read the Brennan Center’s full analysis here about how H.R. 1 would turn the current funding landscape on its head.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Judges: Voters unhappy with 2016 special session should take care of it at the ballot box, not in court

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.



COA Common Cause Challenge (Text)

Commentary, Courts & the Law, News

The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

Commentary:
1. Make no mistake. The budget failed because Republicans failed to compromise.

There is a temptation—and believe me, I understand it—to celebrate the fleeting nature of this week’s special session of the North Carolina state legislature as some sort of coup.

Resist that temptation, even if the sight of an ostensibly frustrated Phil Berger is a new one to these tired eyes.

Berger and his compatriots in the Republican caucus enjoyed near unchecked power in the last decade. A post-Obama surge of conservatives played a modest part in that, although the gerrymandering did its part too. [Read more…]

2. Pipelines, roads and railways: This is why you should care about Trump’s rollback of NEPA, a key environmental law

By the time the new Interstate 885 opens in Durham later this year, some of the people who conceived of the original project will have been long dead.

In the works for 60 years, the East End Connector, as Durhamites call it, funnels traffic over four miles from NC 147 to US 70 and onto I-85, to reduce congestion on surface streets.

But environmental laws did not slow-walk the project. In fact, when the highway was first conceived in the early 1960s, there was no EPA. There was no Clean Water Act, no Clean Air Act. There was no NEPA — National Environmental Policy Act. All those laws were passed in the 1970s. [Read more…]

3. NC’s new “Raise the Age” law appears to be off to a promising start

New facilities and policies offer hope to 16 and 17 year-olds once consigned to the adult corrections system

Tall trees and a rocky, woodsy landscape envelop the C.A. Dillon juvenile detention campus in Butner. Save for the tall metal fence that rings the confinement building, the area could be mistaken for a summer camp or private school grounds.

The feeling that greets the visitor of wanting to go for a group hike or play flag football with old pals quickly diminishes inside, however, as the smell of fresh paint permeates the building and barred windows and concrete walls remind you that this isn’t a fun trip away from home. But it won’t be like that forever – after all, this isn’t jail.[Read more…]

4. State lawmaker’s failure to disclose business ties highlights broader ethics enforcement problem

State Rep. Holly Grange (R-New Hanover) failed to disclose a business owned and operated by her husband on state Statement of Economic Interest (SEI) forms for several years, according to documents reviewed by Policy Watch.

In North Carolina, public officials are required to disclose connections to all non-publicly owned companies by which they or their immediate family members are employed or in which they have an interest.

Grange’s husband, David Grange, registered his “consulting” business Osprey at Compass Pointe LLC with the state Secretary of State’s office in July 2015. Yet the business did not appear on Grange’s SEI form in 2016, when she was first appointed to a state House seat to replace incumbent Rick Catlin. She ran unopposed for the seat in that year’s election. Rep. Grange also did not list the business on her SEI forms in 2017 or 2018. In February 2018, the business was administratively dissolved by the Secretary of State’s office for failure to file an annual report. [Read more…] Read more

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

A “Raise the Age” breakdown by districts across the state

North Carolina officially implemented Raise the Age legislation Dec. 1, 2019 — the change in law means that most 16- and 17-year-olds no longer have to go through the adult criminal justice system and anyone under the age of 18 no longer goes to adult jail.

The Department of Public Safety’s Juvenile Justice division has been hard at work making sure law enforcement, court staff and stakeholders are updated about how the change is coming along. Part of its implementation process involves keeping close track of the numbers — how many Raise the Age complaints are made, how many juveniles are detained, and at some point, trying to figure out the rate of recidivism.

The first set of numbers associated with the new law was released earlier this month at the Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee meeting as part of an initial interim report to lawmakers about Raise the Age.

As reported by NC Policy Watch yesterday, so far, the projections the committee made have generally been close to, or a little under, what was expected. It’s a trend Deputy Secretary William Lassiter hopes holds.

The committee projected 1,683 Raise the Age complaints in the month of December – the first month of implementation – but preliminary data shows there were only 407. It was anticipated there would be 60 juveniles detained that first month, and reports show there were 78.

The numbers can and probably will change, after all, investigations are still ongoing. The committee will complete another interim report in May, though, to give lawmakers and the public a more accurate picture of how implementation is taking off.

Check out the table below for a preliminary district breakdown of Raise the Age complaints in December.

Raise the Age complaints by district

The age of juvenile jurisdiction was officially raised as of Dec. 1 to include 16- and 17-year-olds. The following table reflects preliminary data from the month of December in 2019 and shows how many Raise the Age complaints were made to each district in the state. A Raise the Age complaint is defined as complaints received on juveniles ages 16 and 17. The data was provided by the Department of Public Safety's Juvenile Justice division and is current as of Jan. 8, 2020.
District numberNumber of Raise the Age complaints
District 01<5
District 026
District 0312
District 0410
District 05<5
District 06<5
District 0710
District 08<5
District 09<5
District 1024
District 1112
District 12<5
District 13<5
District 149
District 1510
District 166
District 175
District 189
District 1916
District 206
District 215
District 229
District 235
District 24<5
District 25<5
District 2616
District 2716
District 2811
District 2911
District 30<5
Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Today: Absentee by-mail voting kicks off March primary election

ATLANTA, GA – NOVEMBER 06: Voters cast their ballots at a polling station set up at Grady High School for the mid-term elections on November 6, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. Georgia has a tight race to elect the state’s next Governor. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

The State Board of Elections will begin mailing out absentee by-mail ballots today to voters who request them for the March primary election.

Any North Carolina voter is eligible to vote absentee by mail. Primary Election Day is March 3 and the absentee by-mail ballots must be requested from the voter’s county board of elections by 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 25. Voters will select the political party nominees to appear on the Nov. 3 General Election ballot.

“By-mail absentee voting officially launches the 2020 primary election,” said State Board Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell in a news release. “Any registered voter in North Carolina may request a mail-in absentee ballot for the primary.”

To vote absentee, voters must complete a 2020 state absentee ballot request form. Voters who submit a valid request will receive a ballot from their county board of elections. The materials will include detailed instructions for how to complete and return the ballot, according to the State Board.

There are changes to the absentee voting process this year, including that an absentee request form is only valid if returned to the county board by the voter, the voter’s near relative, legal guardian or Multipartisan Assistance Team (MAT); forms cannot be emailed or faxed; and, if a voter needs help completing the request form due to blindness, disability or inability to read or write and a relative or legal guardian is not available, they can get help from another person, who must list their name and address on the form.

There are five primary ballots available to voters representing the following political parties: Constitution, Democratic, Green, Libertarian and Republican. Voters affiliated with one of those political parties must vote with that primary ballot — unaffiliated voters can choose a Republican, Democratic or Libertarian primary ballot, or a nonpartisan one if available.

One-stop, in-person early voting for the primary begins Thursday, Feb. 13 and runs through Saturday, Feb. 29. A photo-ID is not required to vote in the primary election.

Visit the State Board’s absentee voting page online for more information.