Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Tomorrow: House members hold hearing on NC voting rights, elections administration

The U.S. House Administration Committee Subcommittee on Elections will host a field hearing tomorrow morning about voting rights and election administration in North Carolina.

The public meeting will begin at 10 a.m. at the Centre at Halifax Community College in Weldon. The evidence from the hearing will be used as Congress seeks to reestablish Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which was suspended by the U.S. Supreme Court.

There are two panels expected to speak at the hearing. The first panelists are the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, Democracy NC Executive Director Tomas Lopez and North Carolina Central University School of Law professor Irving Joyner. The second panelists are U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Vice-Chair Patricia Timmons-Goodson, North Carolina Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue (D-Wake) and Forward Justice Co-Director Caitlin Swain.

The Committee has been holding similar hearings across the country. The North Carolina meeting will be livestreamed on the Committee’s website.

Voting rights and election administration has been center stage in North Carolina over the past several months — after absentee ballot fraud in the state’s 9th congressional district, there was a decision to hold a new election; voting rights advocates are also currently fighting a new voter ID law; and the U.S. Supreme Court is currently deciding whether the state can gerrymander voting districts along party lines.

News

U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear NJ “conversion therapy” case

Opponents of so-called “conversation therapy” are celebrating this week as the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to New Jersey’s ban on the practice.

In 2013 New Jersey  became the second state to ban the practice, which seeks to “cure” people of being lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, from use on minors. Sixteen states — plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico — now ban the practice for those under 18.

“In rejecting this case today, the Supreme Court recognized what every sensible and compassionate person across New Jersey and this country knows: anti-LGBTQ conversion therapy is dangerous, discredited malpractice. It is nothing short of child abuse, and there is no legal argument to defend this horrible practice,” said  Christian Fuscarino, executive director of LGBTQ advocacy group Garden State Equality, in a statement Tuesday.

“It’s alarming that this bigotry-driven and legally-hollow case even got to the Justices for consideration,” Fuscarino said. “And this is a stark reminder that the rights of LGBTQ people— even here in New Jersey —are constantly under attack.”

Though recent polling shows overwhelming bi-partisan support for such a ban in North Carolina, a recently filed bill  isn’t getting much traction with the GOP majority in the North Carolina General Assembly.

Bans on the therapy seem to have momentum in the country right now. Discussion of its harmful effects — once relatively taboo — has gone mainstream.

On Wednesday night LGBTQ advocacy group Equality NC is putting on a conversation with Garrard Conley, author of the best-selling “Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith and Family” and Sam Brinton, Head of Advocacy for the Trevor Project.

Conley’s 2016 memoir of surviving conversion therapy was adapted for the big screen last year. The film, directed by Joel Edgerton, stars Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. It was nominated for two Golden Globe awards.

 

Commentary, News

Report: Allegations of vote-buying in Robeson County predated District 9 controversy

"Vote" pin

A lengthy new report from WRAL’s Tyler Dukes details how allegations of vote-buying in Robeson County long predated the District 9 ruckus, begging questions about local prosecutors in the eastern North Carolina county.

According to that report, published Tuesday morning, state election investigators held evidence that appeared to indicate a candidate for local elected office may have paid voters to go to the polls. But the local district attorney — who defends himself in the story — did not prosecute.

The emails that raised eyebrows in 2015 didn’t concern the 9th Congressional District, which made national headlines in 2018. Instead, they focused on a nonpartisan race for city council in Lumberton, where one candidate accused her opponent of paying three voters to cast ballots in exchange for $7 apiece.

Robeson County, of course, was tied up in the allegations of ballot harvesting that forced a new election in Congressional District 9 this year.

But today’s reporting lends further credence to the notion that Robeson County — and the District 9 region — may have been ripe for election malfeasance.

The most important questions, though, involve how state officials will approach these cases in the future. The reporting delves into that as well:

[Former Robeson County D.A. Johnson] Britt’s decision in 2016 was not the first time local prosecutors – or even state and federal ones – have declined to pursue charges over allegations of election improprieties.

In 2010, for example, a special deputy attorney general with the state Department of Justice declined a request from Bladen County’s top prosecutor to look into vote-buying allegations there. Despite allegations of “voter fraud and assorted trickery,” the DOJ lawyer wrote, most alleged victims were elderly and unreliable – they weren’t credible witnesses.

The Robeson County case stands out in some respects, said Josh Lawson, general counsel for the State Board of Elections. But he said it’s also emblematic, in some ways, that the agency sometimes has a difficult time “getting traction” with local prosecutors.

Lawson said his agency is doing its part. State elections officials have ordered at least nine new elections since 2016.

Yet criminal charges like those in the 9th Congressional District investigation remain a rarity – and are well outside the legal purview of the board.

“We’re not trying to cast blame on anybody,” elections board spokesman Pat Gannon said. “But what can happen if these things are allowed to linger and keep happening without any repercussions, the offenders get more brazen. Things that appear to have happened in Bladen this year will happen.”

And if a local prosecutor declines to bring criminal charges – whatever the reason – the board essentially has no recourse.

“Until something happens to change the culture in those areas, we’re going to continue to have to repeat this conversation over and over again,” Gannon said.

Former Robeson District Attorney Britt said one potential fix is a change in state law. Legislators could give the authority to prosecute election law violations to the state attorney general’s office, or even the Wake County district attorney, where the state elections board is based.

That tactic worked for the 9th District, where Wake County’s district attorney took over the investigation after Bladen County’s top prosecutor recused himself.

“You put it in the hands of the people who are most familiar with it,” Britt said.

Environment, Legislature

State lawmakers ask FERC to stop work on Atlantic Coast Pipeline, reassess need

Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford

More than 20 Democratic legislators, led by Rep. Pricey Harrison of Guilford County, sent a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission asking it to issue a stop work order on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline while it reassess the need for the $7.8 billion project. The letter, dated April 12, also asks FERC to suspend the Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity, a requirement for energy projects, during the reassessment.

The ACP’s primary owners are Dominion Energy and Duke Energy. If built, it would start at a fracked gas operation in West Virginia and route more than 600 miles through Virginia, eastern North Carolina and into South Carolina. The project, though has been stalled by successful legal challenges in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. It is nearly two years behind schedule and at least $2 billion over its initial budget.

The cost increase, the lawmakers wrote, “would be passed on to captive ratepayers.” Instead of developing renewable energy projects, the utilities focus on the ACP “would lock not just North Carolina but the entire Southeast region into decades of climate-disrupting fossil fuel use,” incompatible with the state’s climate goals established in Governor Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 80.

The letter notes says that the utilities have overstated the need for natural gas. Duke Energy’s latest Integrated Resource Plan, essentially an energy blueprint for the next 15 years, delays planned natural gas plants by five years, and its “first power plant that might need more gas supply is not proposed to begin operating until many years after the ACP is supposed to be in service.”

 

Lawmakers to FERC by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

The utilities’ and supporters’ rationale for building the ACP is that it would jumpstart the economy in eastern North Carolina. However, subsidiaries of Duke and Dominion are the main customers for the proposed ACP gas in North Carolina. The average cost for a manufacturing plant to connect to the ACP is at least $1 million.

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers have introduced bills this session to thwart renewable energy in North Carolina, an apparent rebuke to Gov. Cooper’s climate goals. Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Onslow County, filed legislation that would ban wind energy projects within 100 miles of the coast, ostensibly to prevent them from interfering with military training exercises. However, at a committee meeting last week, the former head of the Defense Department’s Site Clearinghouse, which works with wind energy developers to avoid those impacts, said there have been no cases of wind farms interfering with military bases in the US.

Yesterday five Republicans co-sponsored House Bill 726, which would repeal the state’s Renewable Portfolio Energy Standard. Passed in 2007, the REPS was the first in the Southeast. It set legal benchmarks for utilities to provide, either through generation or purchase, a certain percentage of their energy from renewable sources. Currently, it is 10 percent. Duke Energy  previously told the utilities commission that it is meeting those goals.

Courts & the Law, News

Cooper taps DPS official, ACLU legal director to serve as new Court of Appeals judges

Reuben Young and Chris Brook

Gov. Roy Cooper announced Monday two new appointments to the state Court of Appeals.

The new judges are Reuben Young, who currently serves as chief deputy secretary for adult corrections and juvenile justice at the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, and Chris Brook, who is currently the legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina.

“The work of the North Carolina Court of Appeals must instill confidence in the people of our state, reminding them they live within a fair and just society,” Cooper wrote in a news release. “These appointees will bring extensive legal experience to their service on the court.”

Both Young and Brook are registered Democrats. They are filling vacancies left by now state Supreme Court Justice Mark Davis (who was appointed to fill a vacancy left by current Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, who was appointed to that role upon Mark Martin’s unexpected retirement) and Judge Robert Hunter, who retired April 1. The court will become an 8-7 Democratic majority.

Young previously served for five years as a special superior court judge and as Secretary of the NC Department of Public Safety. He also served as chief legal counsel in the Governor’s office. He received his undergraduate degree from Howard University and his law degree from North Carolina Central University.

Brook is no stranger to North Carolina’s appellate system. He has been to the Court of Appeals many times in his capacity as legal director at the ACLU. He challenged the state’s anti-LGBTQ HB2 law and has been involved in many ACLU cases. The organization’s website highlights specifically his work to safeguard religious liberty in public schools, his fight against Amendment One and to narrow its potential collateral consequence, and his work to protect free assembly rights in Charlotte during the Democratic National Convention.

Brook previously served as a staff attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and as an attorney in private practice. He received his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Neither Young nor Brook immediately responded to email requests for comment.

The Court of Appeals decides only questions of law, not questions of fact. It reviews cases appealed from lower courts for errors of law or legal procedure. Some of its cases can be appealed to the state Supreme Court.