Courts & the Law, News

UPDATED: Cooper, Stein take steps to withdraw request for U.S. Supreme Court to hear monster voting law

This story has been updated to reflect Republican General Assembly leaders’ response.

Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein have taken steps to withdraw North Carolina’s request for the U.S. Supreme Court to review the monster voting law struck down last summer by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The case is North Carolina v. North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and appellate judges found that the omnibus voting restrictions law sought to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision” to limit access to the ballot box.

Former Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration joined in petitioning the nation’s highest court in December to hear the case. Justices are expected to review the writ of certiorari at its March 3 conference.

There has been speculation over the last several weeks about Cooper and Stein’s ability to change the course of the case and protect voter rights, but their offices had not addressed the issue until today.

This morning, the Governor’s General Counsel and Chief Deputy Attorney General jointly sent a letter discharging outside counsel in the case on behalf of the State. Also today, the Governor’s Office and the NC Department of Justice formally withdrew the State and Governor’s request for the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Fourth Circuit’s decision.

After the Governor’s Office and N.C. Department of Justice withdraw, the State Board of Elections, its individual members, and its Executive Director will remain in the case for the time being.

“We need to make it easier for people to exercise their right to vote, not harder, and I will not continue to waste time and money appealing this unconstitutional law,” Governor Cooper said. “It’s time for North Carolina to stop fighting for this unfair, unconstitutional law and work instead to improve equal access for voters.”

“The right to vote is our most fundamental right,” said AG Stein. “Voting is how people hold their government accountable. I support efforts to guarantee fair and honest elections, but those efforts should not be used as an excuse to make it harder for people to vote.”

Legislative leaders House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger responded by criticizing Cooper and Stein and said the voter suppression law is “hugely popular.” You can read their full press release here.

 “Roy Cooper’s and Josh Stein’s desperate and politically-motivated stunt to derail North Carolina’s voter ID law is not only illegal, it also raises serious questions about whether they’ve allowed their own personal and political prejudices and conflicts of interest to cloud their professional judgment. We expect the courts to reject this unethical stunt just as they did when Cooper tried the same trick in the ‘Choose Life’ license tag case.”

HB2, News

ICYMI: Rep. Meyer: It’s imperative legislators fully repeal HB2 before it’s too late

If you missed it over the weekend, be sure to check out our interview with state Rep. Graig Meyer, who discusses the need to fully repeal HB2 before it’s too late and what legislative leaders might do with this year’s state surplus.

A growing number of local elected officials are also appealing to the General Assembly for repeal.

On Monday, Durham Mayor Bill Bell joined the call to find a compromise on HB2. Under Bell’s proposed compromise, he would have the legislature repeal the controversial law and impose a six-month moratorium on municipalities from passing any future anti-discrimination ordinances, unless of course the U.S. Supreme Court rules on this issue sooner.  Read more about Mayor Bell’s proposal here.

Commentary, Courts & the Law

Expert: NC voter suppression law will be revived if Trump’s Supreme Court nominee is confirmed

In case you missed it the other day, U.S. Supreme Court expert Ian Millhiser posted another damning and sobering assessment of Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. His first finding: if Gorsuch had been on the court last year, North Carolina’s “monster” voter suppression law would be in full force. This is from his latest column, “Which rights are on the chopping block if Trump’s SCOTUS nominee is confirmed?”:

In the long term, [a Justice Gorsuch] could mean massive, sweeping changes to American law. Gorsuch’s previous judicial opinions suggest that he could hobble federal regulation of the environment and the workplace. He may even support more ambitious plans to cut away a string of progressive accomplishments stretching back to the New Deal.

And in the short term, there are plenty of looming issues on the Court’s docket that Gorsuch could have more immediate influence over.

If he is confirmed, Gorsuch’s first few years on the Court is likely to feature a stream of cases involving voting rights, workers rights, LGBT rights, and the right of religious conservatives to defy laws that they object to on religious grounds. In all of these cases, the news is not good for the little guy.

And here’s his take on Gorsuch and North Carolina’s voter suppression law:

Before Scalia’s death, the Roberts Court was not friendly toward voting rights. The Court permitted state-level voter ID laws, a common method of voter suppression. It struck down a major prong of the Voting Rights Act. And it’s placed increasingly high procedural hurdles in front of litigants seeking to protect their right to vote.

In one particularly notable case, a federal appeals court struck down North Carolina’s omnibus voter suppression law. As the appeals court explained, North Carolina lawmakers “requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices,” then used this data to design a voter suppression law that disproportionately targeted African Americans and that minimized its impact on white voters.

And yet, when this case reached the Supreme Court, all four of the Court’s conservatives voted to reinstate the North Carolina law. If Scalia were still alive, the law would have been in effect during the 2016 election.

Gorsuch, if confirmed, will almost certainly provide these four conservatives with the fifth vote they need to uphold laws such as North Carolina’s—even, apparently, when the law was enacted for the very purpose of preventing black people from voting.

In addition to voting rights, Millhiser lists several other issues that seem sure to go the wrong way  if Gorsuch is confirmed, including gerrymandering, union rights, transgender rights, access to birth control, discrimination by religious employers, worker rights and Trump’s Muslim ban. In other words, if you think the battle over the Gorsuch nomination is not the biggest and most important fight of 2017, you’re just plain wrong.

Commentary, News

Governor Cooper’s teacher pay plan explained

As WRAL.com reported this afternoon, Gov. Roy Cooper proposed a new teacher pay plan  today that seeks to get North Carolina to the national average in five years:

Gov. Roy Cooper said Monday that his proposed budget will include 5 percent raises for public school teachers in each of the next two years and laid out a plan to bring teacher pay in North Carolina to the national average within five years.

“These aren’t just investments in our teachers. They are lasting investments in our economy and in our own children’s future,” Cooper said at an event at Collinswood Language Academy in Charlotte. “Education is part of North Carolina’s legacy, but recently we’ve fallen behind. My proposal is a serious, multi-year increase in teacher salaries that will get us to the national average so we can show our teachers the respect they deserve.”

North Carolina currently ranks 41st nationally in average teacher salary.

Advocates at the North Carolina Association of Educators welcomed the announcement. This is from a statement released by the group.

“Governor Cooper’s two-year teacher pay proposal is a significant step toward restoring respect back to the profession and making North Carolina a teacher destination state once again. It also does not leave out our most experienced educators, which has been the case in recent years. The most valuable resource a student can have to help them be successful is a qualified, caring teacher in front of the class. Governor Cooper’s strong commitment to public education, educators, and students will make sure North Carolina can recruit and retain the qualified educators and gets North Carolina back on the right track.”

As part of the announcement, Cooper distributed a one-page fact sheet that spells out some of the details of the proposal. Click here to check it out.

Commentary, Environment

Reporter’s notebook: People, places and the potential harm of Atlantic Coast Pipeline (with video)

Protesting the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in Pembroke. Dominion Energy and Duke Energy have applied to federal regulators to construct a 600-mile natural gas pipeline, which will run from West Virginia through Virginia and eight counties in eastern North Carolina. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

When some asks me how I settled on becoming an environmental reporter, I reply that I had no choice. I grew up in a 19-acre woods in rural Indiana, where my mother, an amateur naturalist, and I raised spring peepers to our ears, handled garter snakes, and without hesitation crawled on our bellies, wielding magnifying glasses to get a closer look at a white-winged bug we had not seen before.

By second grade, I had learned by heart the names of dozens of species of trees and flowers. In kindergarten, while other kids brought toys to Show and Tell, I hauled in the family box of arrowheads and fossils.

Rural Indiana is similar to rural North Carolina in that it is beautiful. Although it lacks the majesty of mountains, the landscape, which ranges from ironing-board flat to gently rolling, is fertile, meditative, calming.

Both areas of the country are also poor. The bustling factories — cars there, textiles here — and their solid, middle-class wages have disappeared. The people have left, too. One afternoon, when I was about 10, my dad told me that U.S. 36 ran along 40 degrees latitude, and if I followed it to the other side of the world, I would run into Madrid, Spain. At that moment, I knew someday I would leave.

My hometown, population 300, is dissimilar in that it is nearly all white. (When the nearby ketchup factory closed, the Latino migrant workers who picked tomatoes moved on.) In that regard, we did not have to fight the systemic racism that has robbed communities of color of their opportunity. But the economic malaise I encountered in eastern North Carolina feels familiar. And like in Indiana, there is intense pressure to lure industry to the area, at nearly any environmental price.

 

A decaying 19th-century grain mill is veiled in ivy. The mill is in historic Weldon, along the Roanoke River near the Halifax/Northampton County line. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Last Friday, NCPW published the first of two stories about the social justice and environmental implications of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. If the ACP receives federal approval, it would route through some of the most impoverished areas of the state. These also are communities of color, which bear the cumulative burdens of pollution — landfills, industrialized hog farms, pulp mills, pellet plants — and have long fought institutional racism to acquire even a sliver of land.

Thursday morning, the second part will run. It deals with the environmental  implications of the $5 billion project, co-owned by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy. The wetlands, rivers and swamps of eastern North Carolina are home to hundreds of animals, amphibians, birds and fish, some of them endangered or threatened species. Many of these rivers, such as the Upper Neuse and the Roanoke, also serve us humans; they are main sources of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians. The pipeline’s ecological damage could be irreparable.

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In late December, federal officials released a 1,000-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which is supposed to detail how the pipeline could harm people and places along the route. In the statement, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — FERC — determined the pipeline would have no significant adverse effects on North Carolina — if the utilities appropriately adjust their construction methods.

That’s a big if. It requires a public trust that the utilities and FERC have not earned. For example, a lot of environmental information is still missing from the DEIS; the utilities have yet to provide it. The public, then, is supposed to comment on an incomplete document, one full of holes and unknowns. It is not a reasonable request.

The Roanoke River in Weldon (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

The argument for the pipeline is that its energy will accommodate North Carolina’s growth. With more natural gas at the ready, proponents say, manufacturing jobs will return to eastern North Carolina. But that is not certain. Meanwhile, some conservative lawmakers are trying to stymie wind and solar energy, which not only could help offset the need for natural gas, but also could provide manufacturing jobs for wind turbines and solar panels.

Somewhere in the tiny towns of eastern North Carolina, like Dortches or Sims or Whitley Place, there’s a kid, about 6 or 7 years old. She is catching minnows in Stony Creek, tossing pebbles at the snags in Burnt Coat Swamp or watching the Neuse River lumber toward the Atlantic Ocean. Toward possibility, opportunity. Maybe she’ll leave. Or maybe she’ll just stay put.

 

Motorcycles escorted demonstrators during a march in Pembroke (Photo: Lisa Sorg)