News, Trump Administration

U.S. House quashes effort to consider impeachment

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D- California)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House on Wednesday refused to consider impeachment articles against President Trump, with most Democrats siding with Republicans to kill the effort.

Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) attempted to use a procedural mechanism on the House floor to prod his colleagues to vote on his impeachment resolution stating that Trump “is unfit to be President and warrants impeachment, trial, and removal from office.”

But the House voted 332-95 in favor of a “motion to table” the effort, effectively killing the resolution. Only 95 Democrats supported Greens’ effort, with 137 Democrats joining 194 Republicans and Michigan independent Justin Amash to table the resolution.

North Carolina’s three Democrats split on the matter. David Price voted for the motion to table, while G.K. Butterfield and Alma Adams voted against it. All 10 Republicans from the state voted “aye,” except for Mark Walker, who did not vote.

It comes as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats have urged the caucus to tread slowly on impeachment efforts. Even many of the Democrats who back an impeachment “inquiry” — a first step toward a floor vote on impeachment — say they want to spend time building a solid record against Trump in the House Judiciary Committee.

Green’s resolution specifically condemned Trump for his recent racist comments after the president told four Democratic members of Congress to “go back” to other countries.

Wednesday’s vote is expected to intensify the debate between the Democratic lawmakers who are anxious to move on impeachment and those — including some moderates who flipped Republian seats in November — who are wary of political pitfalls.

Trump derided impeachment supporters after the vote.

“The United States House of Representatives has just overwhelmingly voted to kill the Resolution on Impeachment, 332-95-1. This is perhaps the most ridiculous and time consuming project I have ever had to work on,” he wrote on Twitter. “This should never be allowed to happen to another President of the United States again!”

Robin Bravender is the Washington Bureau Chief of the States Newsroom Network, of which Policy Watch is a member.


After DEQ denies WesternGeco’s request to conduct offshore seismic testing, company appeals to feds

Last year coastal residents packed a hearing and rally in opposition to offshore drilling and seismic testing. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

A clash between the state Department of Environmental Quality and an offshore drilling company has escalated to the federal level, with the U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross potentially intervening.

WesternGeco plans to shoot air guns  every 10 seconds, 208 days a year, at 225 to 260 decibels — louder than a rocket launch — from 19 miles offshore from the coast of Maryland, past North Carolina and further down the East Coast to 50 miles offshore of St. Augustine, Fla.

Although this part of the Atlantic Ocean is beyond states’ jurisdictional boundary of three miles, energy exploration companies still must seek state certification to determine if the proposals comply with their respective coastal management laws. If the state objects, as has North Carolina, the federal government can’t issue a permit. However, the US Department of Commerce ultimately rules on appeals and disputes.

“We remain vigilant in our opposition to activities related to oil and gas exploration off the North Carolina coast,” Secretary Michael Regan said in a prepared statement. “WesternGeco’s proposal for seismic airgun blasting poses too many risks to our commercial and recreational fishing economy, marine life and overall coastal environment and economy that our state cannot afford to take. We will use any available avenues to fight WesternGeco’s appeal.”

In March WesternGeco requested a Consistency Certification from DEQ that would have allowed the company to explore for offshore energy deposits using air guns. The state’s Division of Coastal Management rejected the application as being incomplete. NOAA overruled the state, saying the company’s application was sufficient.

Since then, several state agencies have reviewed the application and held public hearings on the coast about the proposal. DCM, the Division of Marine Fisheries and the Wildlife Resources Commission all objected to the proposal because of the likely damage to aquatic life, ecosystems and commercial and recreational fishing. DEQ also convened a scientific panel that concluded the company’s actions could not only kill fish but zooplankton, the foundation of the marine food chain.

Even though the company would be using air guns outside of North Carolina’s jurisdictional boundary, the sound and shock waves travel for miles. Fish and other aquatic life often swim farther asea and then return to the North Carolina coast, its bays and estuaries. The seismic testing could harm the sea life that makes North Carolina its home base, scientists concluded.

“We know that seismic airgun blasting is incredibly dangerous for marine life and is the first step toward offshore drilling in the Atlantic,” said Randy Sturgill, Oceana senior campaign organizer. “North Carolinians and the DEQ have spoken – seismic airgun blasting is not compatible with our coast.

“We won this fight before and we’ll win it again. We are going to do everything in our power to stop this unlawful, irreparable and needless harm.”

On July 10, WesternGeco appealed the state’s findings to US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Among several claims, the company says that DEQ failed to describe how the proposal is inconsistent with state coastal policies. In fact, North Carolina has approved of similar surveys, albeit under a different administration.

From April 22 though  June 16, 2015, when Donald van der Vaart was DEQ Secretary and Pat McCrory was governor, the state found that four other geophysical surveys were consistent with the state’s coastal management plan.

However, President Barack Obama subsequently banned drilling in the mid-Atlantic for five years, and the seismic testing did not occur.

Both McCrory and van der Vaart advocated for offshore drilling, over the objections of thousands of coastal residents and governments. (The Carteret County and Onslow County commissioners are the only two local governments that have not publicly opposed these practices.)  Coastal opposition, not only in North Carolina but up and down the Eastern Seaboard, to offshore drilling and seismic testing has strengthened, not waned since then.

The Trump administration supports offshore drilling. When Trump became president, he sought to overturn Obama’s ban in the Arctic and mid-Atlantic, but it’s been stalled by several legal challenges. Trump also recently announced rollbacks to offshore drilling safety rules.

Tricia Smith, spokeswoman for the Division of Coastal Management, said that even though offshore drilling in the mid-Atlantic is  subject to the ban, the state’s permitting process still continues.

Commerce Secretary Ross can overrule the state’s decision only for matters of national security or if the request is consistent with the goals of  federal Coastal Zone Management Act. WesternGeco, in its appeal, is arguing that “the national interests furthered by the survey outweigh any adverse coastal effects.”

Crystal Coast Waterkeeper Larry Baldwin said that after Obama’s drilling ban, some people shifted their attention to other environmental issues. “People got too comfortable,” Baldwin said. “The current [Trump] administration, they’re just going to wait it out. It’s not a dead issue.”

Courts & the Law, News

Key expert witness on Day 2 of testimony in partisan gerrymandering trial

Thomas Farr, an attorney for the legislative defendants in a partisan gerrymandering trial, cross examines Jowei Chen, an expert witness for the plaintiffs. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

A key witness in North Carolina’s partisan gerrymandering trial continues to testify today about how the state’s 2017 legislative maps are considered extreme partisan outliers and the mapmaker singularly focused on partisanship while drawing them.

Jowei Chen, an expert for the plaintiffs in Common Cause v. Lewis, presented analysis Tuesday that Thomas Hofeller — the deceased mapmaker behind the 2017 voting districts — predominantly considered partisan advantage during the redistricting process and did not follow the publicly adopted criteria.

Chen — who has expertise in geographic information systems, political geography, redistricting and legislative districts — testified about a series of computer-simulated maps he created to establish a baseline with which to compare Hofeller’s draft maps and the legislature’s final enacted maps.

Hofeller’s daughter turned over his digital data to the plaintiffs in the case after his death. Most of the files are still involved in litigation about whether they can be used, but the three-judge panel in the Wake County Superior Court presiding over Common Cause has allowed 35 specific relevant documents to be used at this trial.

In addition to analyzing the maps, Chen answered four questions about whether partisan intent dominated in the redistricting process, what the effect of the final enacted plans was on a number of legislative races, if Hofeller used the adopted redistricting criteria and the effect of the final plans on individual House and Senate districts.

He said that partisan intent did dominate and it had the effect of producing fewer Democratic districts than would have emerged if Hofeller’s map drawing would have followed the traditional redistricting criteria set by the legislature during a public process.

Chen is animated when he talks about his work, and frequently was asked to slow down Tuesday by the court reporter. His testimony was straight-forward and extremely detailed. Questioning often delved deep into the weeds of redistricting and mapmaking.

He also presented evidence about how Hofeller finished drafting most of the maps in late June before the legislative redistricting process ever began and that many of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit were placed into enacted districts that were considered to be partisan outliers compared to computer-simulated plans that followed the traditional adopted criteria.

Other analyses Chen went over included his findings from overlapping Hofeller’s draft maps with the final enacted maps. He said Hofeller assigned 97.6 percent of Census blocks containing 95.6 percent of the total North Carolina population into the draft Senate map before the redistricting process took place and 90.9 percent of Census blocks containing 88.2 percent of the total state population in the House plan.

He also showed through screenshots from Hofeller’s mapmaking program how he copied his draft maps to eventually become the final maps.

Jowei Chen is an expert witness for the plaintiffs in Common Cause v. Lewis. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Finally, Chen presented findings that showed the mapmaker used race as part of the redistricting process while creating the draft maps.

Today, Chen only testified under direct examination for a few minutes before Thomas Farr, an attorney for the legislative defendants, objected to the admission of his and other expert reports into evidence and the Hofeller files as a whole.

Farr, who was nominated by President Donald Trump over the past two years to a federal judgeship, told the judges that courts frequently don’t admit expert reports and instead rely on only testimony. The plaintiffs, he added, had plenty of time to make their case with Chen.

He also said the legislative defendants believed all the files from Hofeller’s computer should have been eliminated. He objected to the use of the files on grounds that they weren’t relevant to the case.

“The issue in this case is whether the maps adopted by the General Assembly are legal,” he said. “All this testimony about Dr Hofeller is a sideshow.”

Farr pointed out that there was no evidence legislative leaders Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) and Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Madison) ever saw Hofeller’s computer or files, and that the documents were “highly, highly prejudicial.”

Daniel Jacobson, an attorney for the plaintiffs, argued that the expert reports should be admitted based on a “residual exception” and said they would be helpful for the judges to better understand the case.

He described the Hofeller files Farr objected to as “smoking gun evidence.”

Daniel Jacobson, an attorney for the plaintiffs in a partisan gerrymandering lawsuit (pictured right), argues against objections by Thomas Farr, an attorney for the legislative defendants, to throw out expert reports and files from a dead mapmaker’s computer. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

“I cannot think of evidence that would be more relevant to a partisan gerrymandering case,” he added.

He said if someone hires an individual to do a job — as is the case with the lawmakers and Hofeller — that person’s activities and state of mind were relevant. He also argued that the Hofeller files were public record.

Judge Paul Ridgeway delivered the panel’s ruling on the issues. They admitted the expert reports to corroborate testimony but said they would make a decision at a later time about whether to consider them on a substantive basis.

Ridgeway said they also found the Hofeller files to be relevant and admissible. They conducted a balancing test, he said, and ruled the probative purpose of documents outweighed the prejudice to the legislative defendants.

Farr began Chen’s cross examination after the ruling. He went over his background and asked specific questions about how he conducted his analyses.

He also asked some hypothetical questions about Hofeller’s work. In one, he asked if it was possible the mapmaker could have looked at the race of voters after drawing the maps as opposed to during to check his work. Chen responded that, technically, it would have been possible that Hofeller put his hand over the computer screen and blinded himself to it, but that it was open during the drawing process.

Farr is currently continuing cross examination. For live updates during the trial, follow reporter Melissa Boughton on Twitter.

News, Trump Administration

House condemns Trump’s ‘racist comments’, not a single NC Republican stands against the President

President Donald Trump (Credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)

On Tuesday, the U.S. House voted (240-187) to formally condemn President Trump’s racist comments directed at members of Congress.

Earlier this week, Trump took to Twitter to attack four Congresswomen of color – Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) – suggesting they ‘go back’ to the counties they came from.

Three of the women were born in the U.S. All were elected by voters in their respective states to serve in Congress.

The resolution reads in part that the House of Representatives:

“…strongly condemns President Donald Trump’s racist comments that have legitimized and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color…”

Rep. Alma Adams

Congresswoman Alma Adams (NC-12), one of the three North Carolina congressional representatives to vote for the resolution, has called Trump’s remarks “hateful and un-American.”

Ahead of the President’s “Keep America Great” rally in Greenville Wednesday evening, not a single Republican from the North Carolina’s House delegation voted to rebuke Trump.

In all, just four Republicans in the U.S. House – Reps. Susan Brooks of Indiana, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Will Hurd of Texas, and Fred Upton of Michigan- voted with Democrats to support the condemnation.

Read the full resolution here.

See how the entire North Carolina delegation voted:
Rep. G.K. Butterfield – 1st District
Rep. David Price – 4th District
Rep. Alma Adams – 12th district

Rep. George Holding – 2nd District
Rep. Virginia Foxx – 5th District
Rep. Mark Walker – 6th District
Rep. David Rouzer – 7th District
Rep. Richard Hudson – 8th District
Rep. Patrick McHenry – 10th District
Rep. Mark Meadows – 11th District
Rep. Ted Budd – 13th District

North Carolina’s 3rd District & 9th District seats are currently vacant.

Courts & the Law, News

NAACP in voter ID, tax cap litigation appeal: Illegal actions have consequences

Illegal actions have consequences — that’s the message the NAACP is sending to lawmakers in its response to an appeal of a court’s decision to throw out the voter ID and tax cap constitutional amendments.

A Wake County Superior Court judge ruled in February that the unconstitutionally constituted legislature did not have the authority to alter the state constitution when it proposed those two amendments. Lawmakers appealed the decision, and the NAACP, which raised the legal challenges, has asked for the state Supreme Court to step in, but in the mean time, litigation goes through the state Court of Appeals.

The plaintiff’s argument in its appellate response is that the legislative defendants forfeited their claim to popular sovereignty when they drew illegal maps that racially segregated voters and diminished the political voice of African Americans. They are represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center.

It states that Republicans, who had a supermajority in the legislature at the time the amendments were created, knew they obtained power illegally and was warned about it by a federal court, but still proceeded.

“Nevertheless, Defendants, without regard for the law or the people they serve, attempted to rewrite our state’s most foundational document,” the court document states.

The legislative defendants wrote in its appeal that the lower court that ruled in favor of the NAACP focused more on the ills it perceived from redistricting than it did the merits of the case.

“The trial court became the first known court in the country to void amendments passed by a majority of voters on the theory that state legislators were usurpers and lacked the ability to propose amendments to the people for a popular vote,” the initial appeal states.

The defendants contend that the trial court encroached on the legislative branch and violated the separation of powers, so the Court of Appeals should overturn its decision.

The NAACP response states that the defendants “rely on inapposite case law, alarmism, and misinterpretation of state law.”

Gov. Roy Cooper filed an amicus brief in the case agreeing with the NAACP’s position that lawmakers should not have been able to propose an alteration to the state constitution. Read more