Commentary, Courts & the Law, Education, Environment, News

The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

1. Superintendent Mark Johnson’s new website may have broken North Carolina law

A controversial website touting Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson may have broken North Carolina law, a Policy Watch investigation has found.

That’s because Johnson’s publicly-funded site launched last month without vetting by the Department of Information Technology (DIT), an agency that, under state law, is expected to review the financing and contracts for any state agency web page.

No such review was conducted for Johnson’s site, according to Bill Holmes, Director of Legislative and Public Affairs for DIT. [Read more]

** BONUS READ: Gov. Cooper names three to State Board of Education

2. Whistling past the graveyard: Conservatives ignore Florence’s dire warnings for NC

If there’s been a single most maddening public narrative to accompany the hurricane disaster that has afflicted so much of North Carolina in recent weeks, it probably has to be the chipper, upbeat tone adopted by a number of conservative politicians and think tankers that Florence was, in effect, just “business as usual” for a state located on the nation’s southeast coast.

The spiel usually goes something like this: “We’re used to hurricanes in North Carolina and to pulling together to rebuild. Between our public emergency responders and private charities, we know how to handle these kinds of situations.”

While certainly admirable on some superficial level (obviously, it’s important to keep a stiff upper lip in the face of tragedy), when you dig below the surface, it’s clear that there are some extremely problematic undertones to the “all is well” rap. [Read more]

** BONUS READ: N.C. lawmakers must change course to help rebuild from Florence and ensure resiliency

3. What’s next for for proven but underfunded hog buyout program after Florence?

Just three weeks ago, Hurricane Florence barreled ashore between Wilmington and New Bern with the ferocity of a tyrant. After unleashing 140 mile per hour winds and torrential rain along the coast, she began to mosey inland.

Then, pregnant with rain, she rested. Florence emptied her contents, and the varicose rivers ruptured their banks, leaking contaminants from hog waste lagoons, poultry operations, wastewater treatment plants, coal ash basins and hazardous waste sites into eastern North Carolina waterways.

This week at the governor’s behest, the legislature convened a special session to appropriate disaster relief funds to help communities recover after Hurricane Florence. [Read more]

4.  Lawmakers plan on long game for Hurricane Florence recovery measures

Bipartisanship has become rare in North Carolina, but lawmakers put their differences aside Tuesday to take their first step toward helping those impacted by Hurricane Florence.

“It was really nice to experience collegiality in the legislative chambers and the sort of lack of partisanship,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford). “That was kind of refreshing.”

She and several other Democrats recognized that the two disaster recovery bills that passed unanimously were small first steps in taking care of what the state actually needed. Gov. Roy Cooper signed the bills into law Wednesday afternoon. [Read more]

5. Misogyny, racism on full display in Kavanaugh confirmation process

With a president who’s been promising to overturn Roe v Wade and re-criminalize abortion since he started campaigning, those who believe in reproductive freedom are naturally skeptical that any nominee he chooses from his list is going to leave any precedent in place that supports access to abortion.

Anti-abortion extremists have consolidated almost enough federal power to do so, and are now working to tilt the balance of the Supreme Court to overturn Roe completely, and, in the meantime, make abortion access so restrictive that virtually no one can access abortion safely or easily. And Brett Kavanaugh, having already ruled that the U.S. government preventing a young immigrant from getting an abortion—even after she met all of the requirements set out by the state of Texas—is not an undue burden, seems their guy to do it. [Read more]

6. Editorial Cartoon: “I like Burr…and Tillis too!”

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Report: Supreme Court races this year could see millions in dark money

The Supreme Court race in North Carolina is one of at least five the Brennan Center for Justice is keeping a close eye on for an influx of dark money.

The organization, a non-partisan public policy and law institute that focuses on the fundamental issues of democracy and justice, reported in mid-September that in the past two months, outside groups like the Judicial Crisis Network and the NRA spent more than $8 million to support or oppose Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

With 29 states holding supreme court elections this November, they expect the same groups to turn their attention to state judicial races.

“Million-dollar outside spending, misleading attack ads and partisanship are fast becoming hallmarks of state judicial elections,” said Douglas Keith, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “And these are just some of today’s threats to judicial independence. State legislatures are working to increase their control over, or their partisan advantage in state courts. The president has attacked judges. Now, national groups that conceal their donors will likely again pump millions into state supreme court races.”

The Brennan Center is tracking, analyzing and publishing data on television spending in the state campaigns leading up to the November 6 elections. Detailed ad data for individual candidates and groups, including spending estimates and storyboards provided by Kantar Media/CMAG, will be available on the Center’s Buying Time page.

Keith said this week that the Center had not yet seen any ads in North Carolina for the state Supreme Court race. It is expected to be a contentious race though, as there has already been litigation over one of the two Republican candidates — Chris Anglin.

Anglin changed his voter registration from Democratic to Republican before filing as a candidate. He is challenging Republican incumbent Barbara Jackson and Democrat Anita Earls. The judicial races are partisan this year.

The Brennan Center reported that North Carolina saw $5.4 million in spending the 2016 election of now Justice Mike Morgan, which shifted the court’s ideological balance to the left. $4.7 million of that spending was from outside groups that partially or completely conceal their donors.

Other states the organization is keeping a close eye on include Arkansas, Michigan and West Virginia.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

NAACP asks for voting accommodations for hurricane-impacted communities

Kelvin Thompson, a Robeson County resident, speaks about being impacted by the hurricane. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Kelvin Thompson still hadn’t recovered from Hurricane Matthew in 2016 when Hurricane Florence turned his life upside down again a couple weeks ago.

“It’s been painful,” he said Monday after a press conference outside the legislature.

The North Carolina NAACP gathered there the day before lawmakers were scheduled to return to Raleigh for a special session on hurricane recovery. The organization has asked for immediate emergency action of the release of hurricane relief resources to the fullest extent possible and for the state to take measures to ensure those affected by the recent natural disaster would still be able to partake in the midterm elections.

Thompson is one of those people. He and his family are staying with relatives now, but they were recently in a Lumberton shelter.

His home flooded in 2016 and hadn’t yet been repaired and his car flooded during Hurricane Florence — now he has to find rides everywhere, including to the community college classes he takes. He asked lawmakers to consider impacted-communities’ needs.

“There are a lot of people who don’t have the necessities they need,” he said.

The NAACP has officially asked the Governor, lawmakers and the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement in three different letters to extend the voter registration deadline by at least three business days in the affected counties — Beaufort, Bladen, Brunswick, Carteret, Columbus, Craven, Cumberland, Duplin, Greene, Harnett, Hoke, Hyde, Johnston, Jones, Lee, Lenoir, Montgomery, Moore, New Hanover, Onslow, Pamlico, Pender, Pitt, Richmond, Robeson, Sampson, Scotland, Wayne and Wilson.

The organization has also asked to extend the absentee ballot deadline for hurricane-impacted counties to 5 p.m. the day prior to Election Day and to allow local churches and community organizations to assist hurricane-impacted voters in obtaining, preparing and submitting absentee ballots. And finally, they have asked for early voting and Election Day accommodations for certain communities.

“We are in a time where building within while battling without is no longer just a saying but a real way of life that each one of us needs to remember as we move through these final days before early voting begins,” said the Rev. Dr. Anthony T. Spearman, president of the N.C. NAACP. “We are truly in a battle – a battle for our very lives, a battle that cannot be won without the constitutional weapon of equal protection under the law.”

Spearman expressed some skepticism about lawmakers’ motives, noting that they have previously implemented deceptive plans and that the NAACP would be back for the special session tomorrow to keep a watchful eye on the public’s business.

Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) tweeted today that his office supported extending voter registration until Oct. 15 in impacted areas, funding additional voter education efforts for displaced individuals and allowing quick replacement of damaged voting sites.

“I let all members of the House from both parties know of my ideas last week,” he tweeted. “No need for name-calling on this issue. We’re all working to help hurricane-impacted families and voters.”

Caitlin Swain, co-director of Forward Justice, said at the Monday press conference that they want to take the worry about voting access off the table for people who are focused on recovering from the hurricane. She said at least 1,200 voters have been displaced and are not in their homes after the storm.

“What we have asked for is simple accommodations that will allow for voters to know that when early voting begins and when Election Day comes around, your voice will be heard, and that voice is essential for being able to ensure that the recovery efforts themselves serve the people who are most impacted in these communities,” she said.

Sylvia Barnes, president of the Goldsboro/Wayne county chapters, spoke at the conference about some of the impacts in her area — she said roads were still closed from flooding damage and two shelters had to be closed because of damage.

“You cannot imagine unless you have been in one of these areas what the devastation is and how people feel so lost,” she said.

The House and Senate are scheduled to convene at 10 a.m. tomorrow, and a joint appropriations meeting is set for 11 a.m. Read the NAACP’s full request below.

Naacp Ncga Letter by NC Policy Watch on Scribd

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Judges plan to make quick decision in mid-decade redistricting case

Just because lawmakers were successful in correcting two Wake County districts that were unconstitutionally gerrymandered doesn’t mean they had to alter four more.

That was the argument made Friday by Southern Coalition for Social Justice Senior Voting Rights Attorney Allison Riggs on behalf of the North Carolina NAACP, the League of Women Voters of NC, Democracy NC, the A. Philip Randolph Institute of NC and four individual plaintiffs.

They are challenging the constitutionality of four state House districts in Wake County based on a state constitution prohibition on mid-decade redistricting.

Riggs told the three-judge panel that absent a court order requiring the redrawing of the four districts in question, the state constitution requires them to remain unaltered.

“Substituting one constitutional violation in 2017 for another doesn’t remedy the injury voters suffer when they’re deprived of legal electoral districts year after year,” she said. “The time for a full fix is now.”

Phil Strach, the attorney representing the legislative defendants, argued that when lawmakers used race the way they did the first time around, that policy created a ripple effect in all the districts. To correct the gerrymanders, they had to err on the side of caution and correct all of Wake County, not just the unconstitutional districts and bordering areas.

“t’s very easy to Monday morning quarterback a redistricting claim,” he said. “Anyone can take hot shots at what the legislature did.”

Strach said lawmakers corrected the federal issue of racial gerrymandering — it may not have been the best way, but it was their way, and the correction is what mattered most.

“The federal remedy would trump the state constitutional requirement,” he added. “We think the court here can avoid the [state] constitutional issue altogether because it’s undisputed that the [federal] constitutional violations were fixed by the legislature.”

Strach also said that when a case comes down to differing interpretations of the state constitution — like in this instance — “then the General Assembly wins.”

The federal constitutional issues of racial gerrymandering stem from the North Carolina v. Covington case.

Riggs took issue with Strach’s characterization of their case as Monday morning quarterbacking because she said lawmakers were told before submitting their districts they didn’t have to alter the four in question. Because of that, and because of alternative maps in evidence, the court, she reiterated, can conclude that lawmakers could remedy the two racially gerrymandered districts without altering the four in question.

Riggs also pointed out that there is not a constitutional avoidance principle that allows them to ignore the case altogether as Strach suggested they do.

“These plaintiffs have rights,” she said.

The three-judge panel — Judges Paul Ridgeway, Joseph Crosswhite and Alma Hinton — took the arguments under advisement and indicated they planned to make a decision in the case soon.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Three-judge panel to consider mid-decade redistricting today

Today, a three-judge panel will hear arguments about whether lawmakers violated a state law against mid-decade redistricting when they redrew districts that weren’t ruled unconstitutionally gerrymandered.

The North Carolina NAACP, the League of Women Voters of NC, Democracy NC, the A. Philip Randolph Institute of NC and four individual plaintiffs are challenging the constitutionality of four state House districts in Wake County.

The same districts were challenged in the racial gerrymandering case, North Carolina v. Covington, based on a state constitution prohibition on mid-decade redistricting — lawmakers were accused of redrawing districts they didn’t have to during a court-ordered remedial map-making process.

A special master redrew those districts and the U.S. District Court ordered they be used in this year’s elections, but the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the districts, likely because they involved issues of state law, not federal law.

The three-judge panel — Judges Paul Ridgeway, Joseph Crosswhite and Alma Hinton — already denied a preliminary injunction in the case. The hearing today is for a summary judgement.

The plaintiffs are asking the panel of judges to agree that the unnecessary redrawing of the four districts violate the state constitution’s ban on mid-decade redistricting and order the previous districts be used in the 2020 election.

Legislative defendants argue that when a court order triggers new redistricting, the state constitution contains no limits on lawmakers’ ability to modify districts.

The hearing will begin at 10 a.m. at Campbell University School of Law.