The state legislature has set aside $8 million to defend lawsuits challenging the litany of controversial laws passed by the Republican majority in recent years, according to the Associated Press.

The litigation list is long and includes several state and federal actions seeking a rejection of voting maps adopted in 2011 and a reversal of voting law changes enacted in 2013, as well as challenges to the state’s same-sex marriage ban, the private school voucher program and the “Choose Life” license plate offering.

Funds for litigation costs go to private counsel retained to represent state officials in court, typically the job of the Attorney General. In some instances though, Attorney General Roy Cooper has declined to represent the state in cases which his office has determined are indefensible.  For example, after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled that a Virginia gay marriage ban violated the U.S. Constitution, Cooper stated that his office would no longer defend the similar North Carolina ban in court. It was time to stop fighting court battles the state could not win, he said at the time.

In other instances, Republican lawmakers have retained private counsel even while Cooper was likewise defending the state, voicing concerns that he wouldn’t adequately represent their interests.

The primary beneficiary of the General Assembly’s largess has been the Raleigh office of Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart, with attorneys from that firm representing state officials in several lawsuits, including the voting rights and redistricting cases. That’s the same firm that also advised Republican leaders during the drafting of the 2011 redistricting plan.

Outside bills since summer 2014 alone exceeded $3 million, according to the AP — $2.9 million of that incurred by Ogletree Deakins to defend the voting rights cases.

Those cases are far from over, as dispositive rulings from the federal district courts remain pending and appeals to the Fourth Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court are likely to follow. The same is true for the redistricting cases in state and federal courts, and new lawsuits challenging other controversial laws are on the horizon.

As the AP points out, a challenge to the state’s “magistrate recusal” law, which allows magistrates to opt out of performing marriages based upon a “sincerely held religious objection” to gay marriage, could be filed in the coming months.

According to Roy Cooper’s office,  the Attorney General has defended state laws in at least 15 cases and didn’t need the help of costly outside counsel.

“Our office hasn’t requested that the General Assembly hire any of the private lawyers they’ve been paying, and we think it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars to pay outside lawyers to do the work we’re already doing,” Cooper’s spokesperson Noelle Talley said in a statement.


Crowd outside the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem

Crowd outside the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem

The battle over sweeping election law changes adopted in North Carolina in 2013 opened on two fronts yesterday.

In a packed courtroom inside the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem, attorneys for both the challengers and the state laid out the case they planned to present to U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder over the next several weeks.

State lawmakers knew exactly what they were doing when they stripped away same day registration, cut early voting days and eliminated the counting of out-of-precinct provisional ballots — provisions used widely by minority voters — Penda D. Hair, an attorney for the North Carolina NAACP, said in her opening statement.

“They were voter suppressors in search of a pretext,” she told the judge.

The state has argued throughout the case that the 2013 changes were neutral on their face, burdening all voters – not just African-American or Latino voters – and that the state’s election laws now resembled those in other states, where same day registration and early voting don’t exist.

But Hair dismissed that argument, saying that other states do not have the same racially-charged history of voter suppression as does North Carolina.

“Poll taxes were neutral on their face,” Hair said. “Literacy tests were neutral on their face. The law teaches it is the impact that matters – an impact that is linked to social and historical conditions – not whether a law explicitly says African Americans or Latinos are not allowed to vote.”

Outside, the trial over the voting changes in the court of public opinion also waged on.

Speakers from the state NAACP held an early morning press conference while their supporters and others from voting rights advocacy groups chanted what’s become the mantra for the Moral Monday movement: “Forward together! Not one step back.”

Ricky Diaz for the NCGOP

Ricky Diaz for the NCGOP

In the opposite corner behind a podium bearing the NCGOP logo, state Republican Party spokesman Ricky Diaz told the media that the election law changes were simply common sense provisions meant to ensure the integrity of the vote.

The parties have identified nearly 100 voters, experts and state officials as possible witnesses in the case, and once opening arguments ended, the challengers began calling them to the stand.

Durham resident Gwendolyn Farrington told the court that she tried to vote near her 6 a.m.-to-6 p.m. job, since she couldn’t get to her own precinct, but was told that she had to cast a provisional ballot — which she later learned would not be counted.

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the state NAACP, also took the stand yesterday afternoon in advance of a planned Moral Monday voting rights march held at 5 p.m. in Winston-Salem.

“In North Carolina, a literacy test is still on the books,” Barber said. “The Voting Rights Act overruled it, but it remains there as a symbol.”

“In this country we should be doing everything humanly possible to ensure all people can vote,” he added.

Trial will continue day-to-day at the federal courthouse at 251 N. Main Street, Winston-Salem, and is expected to last at least two weeks.   Read here for more on what to expect during the proceedings.


TVoting rightshe leaders of the North Carolina NAACP and Democracy North Carolina held a brief press conference outside Gov. McCrory’s office this morning to highlight their demand that the Governor explain the precipitous and troubling drop-off in voter registrations at state public assistance offices.

As was reported here and in several other places last week, a 1993 federal law mandates that state public assistance offices affirmatively reach out to clients with whom they interact to give them the opportunity to register to vote. Since the advent of the McCrory administration’s control of state Department of Health and Human Services offices, however, such registrations have dropped precipitously — from an average of more than 2,000 per month to an average of less than 700 per month.

Today the NAACP submitted a letter to the Governor on behalf the Forward Together Moral Movement asking two things:

1) That the Governor address the issue and explain what the heck has happened by this Wednesday, and

2)  That his office and that of DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos provide expedited responses to several demands for public records related to the issue — perhaps most importantly, any correspondence between DHHS headquarters and local public assistance offices related to the issue voter registration.

NAACP President Rev. William Barber explained during today’s event that the Governor’s response (or lack thereof) would dictate whether or not his organization would seek a federal Department of Justice investigation of the matter.

Let’s hope that, for a change, the McCrory administration treats the matter with the seriousness it deserves. As NAACP lawyer Al McSurely pointed out this morning, the rapid decline in voter registrations over the past two years has, by all indication, resulted in as many as 40,000 fewer lower-income people being registered to vote in North Carolina. This is obviously a huge issue that is especially troubling in light of the efforts of conservative lawmakers to advance the so-called “Monster Voting Law” that has erected several new roadblocks to voting in North Carolina.

Stay tuned.

Senator Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County

Senator Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County

Sometimes, one has to admit that the forces of the universe are possessed of a wicked sense of humor. Witness this story in today’s Washington Post and the new study on which it is based. According to both, preregistering teens to vote so that they become eligible upon turning 18 does in fact increase participation and turnout — exactly what advocates for the practice have been saying for years.

Here, however, is the LOL kicker from the Post story:

“You might think that anything that increases the turnout of young people would inevitably benefit Democrats, since young people lean toward the Democratic Party.  But that is not what Holbein and Hillygus found.  Although preregistration tended to add more Democrats than Republicans to the rolls — simply because more young people registered as Democrats — it actually reduced the Democratic advantage among those young people who actually voted.”

You got that, Senator Rucho? By repealing teen preregistration as they did in the Monster Voting Law of 2013, North Carolina Republicans quite likely hurt themselves.

As you will recall, when pressed for an explanation for the move to repeal teen preregistration, Rucho, the Senate architect of the proposal said that the old law had been “very confusing” to his high school-aged son. And while this explanation was widely dismissed at the time as a rather transparent bit of excuse making, the new study seems to confirm that maybe Rucho was being straight. After all, by all indications, failing to understand how voting and voting laws law really work is something that runs in the Rucho family.


voteNew data put out today by Democracy NC found that voter participation was higher in the state for the 2014 midterm election than it was in 2010. In general, voter turnout increased across the board for most subgroups but the most significant increase came from the group of unaffiliated voters. Of the 250,600 more people who voted in the 2014 election, almost two-thirds were Independents. Among Democrats and Republicans, the changes were slight. Even though more Democratic women came out to vote in 2014, Republican men continued to turnout in higher numbers. Since the percentage of party-affiliated voters didn’t change drastically, it certainly seems that Independent vote had a serious impact on the outcome of the election.

According to Bob Hall, director of Democracy NC, “Thom Tillis gained the edge from independent voters, conservative Democrats and the higher turnout of Republican voters,” while “Senator Kay Hagan benefited from the increased turnout of Democratic women and African Americans.”

The African American vote increased by 1.9 percentage points in the midterm election, which Hall credits to the efforts of groups including, Democracy North Carolina, the NC NAACP, Common Cause, and the League of Women Voters, who mounted yearlong campaigns to educate voters about the new voting rules.

However, Hall notes that, the increases in voter participation, both within subgroups and overall, aren’t necessarily a cause for joy. He explained that no party or group can be proud of an election where more than half the registered voters did not participate. “The loss of same-day registration cut out at least 20,000 voters,” he said, “and the end of straight-party voting and out-of-precinct voting created long lines and enormous problems that pushed away thousands of more people.”

Democracy NC’s full press release can be read here and voter turnout data can be found here.