New Republican majority on the NC Supreme Court agrees to rehear voter ID and redistricting cases

The state Supreme Court’s new Republican majority will rehear cases on voter photo ID and redistricting that were decided against Republican legislators less than two months ago.

The North Carolina Supreme Court building in Raleigh

In December, the then-Democratic majority on the state’s highest court held that the voter ID law the Republican legislative majority pushed through in 2018 was enacted with “an impermissible intent to discriminate against African-American voters.”

The 4-3 Democratic majority also ruled in December that the state Senate districts used in the November elections were unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders.

With the switch to a 5-2 Republican majority this year, it appears that these victories by voting rights groups will be temporary.

Soon after two seats on the court switched parties and new Republican justices joined, Republican legislators asked for new hearings in both cases. In the redistricting cases, also they asked the court to overrule a February 2022 decision that found state House, Senate, and congressional districts were unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders.

Republicans’ lawyers have argued, and Republican justices agreed in their dissents last year, that issues of partisan redistricting are outside the purview of courts.

The two remaining Democratic justices disagreed with the GOP majority’s decision Friday to rehear the cases.

In her dissent in the redistricting decision, Justice Anita Earls wrote that rehearing the case was a “radical break with 205 years of history.”

Rehearing cases is rare, she wrote. Since January 1993, 214 petitions for rehearing were filed, and only two were allowed.

“Going down this path is a radical departure from the way this Court has operated, and these orders represent a rejection of the guardrails that have historically protected the legitimacy of the Court,” she wrote.

“Not only does today’s display of raw partisanship call into question the impartiality of the courts, but it erodes the notion that the judicial branch has the institutional capacity to be a principled check on legislation that violates constitutional and human rights.”

The rehearings are scheduled for March 14.

State wants to suspend court order for disability services and housing while it appeals

Samantha Rhoney, courtesy Disability Rights NC

The state should not have to meet some of the standards set out in a court order for keeping or moving people with disabilities into community housing and for addressing needs for in-home care while it appeals, a lawyer for the state Department of Health and Human Service told a judge Friday.

The lack of money, housing, direct care workers and nurses make it impossible for the state to meet requirements Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour set last year to dramatically reduce institutionalization of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities and provide more people with community aid, the state said in a court brief filed before Friday’s hearing.

In November, Baddour issued a sweeping order in the “Samantha R.” lawsuit brought by Disability Rights North Carolina on behalf of people who are institutionalized or face institutionalization. Among other actions, the order required the state to pare the list of 16,000 people waiting for community services over time and to eliminate it in 10 years.

The lawsuit is named for Samantha Rhoney, whose parents admitted her to a state institution under duress because their daughter could not receive services she needed to live at home. Rhoney recently moved from the state’s J. Iverson Riddle Development Center to a home near her parents.

At the hearing Friday, a lawyer for Disability Rights said the state should not keep stalling while people’s needs remain unmet.

“Fundamentally, the issue is whether the rights and lives of people will be sacrificed in deference to the same systems that have been failing them for decades,” said Lisa Grafstein, a Disability Rights lawyer who also serves as a member of the state Senate from Wake County.

Baddour seemed skeptical of some of the state’s claims. He did not issue a ruling Friday morning.

The state wants to put a hold on most of the meatiest parts of Baddour’s order – increasing access to community-based services and transitioning or diverting people from institutions – while its appeal is ongoing.

Under the order, DHHS should move at least 25 people out of institutions and keep another 75 or so from having to move into an institution by Jan. 1, 2024 and move 1,631 people off the waiting list for in-home or community services by July 1 of this year.

By Jan. 1, 2031, the state should have moved 3,000 people from institutions into community settings or have kept them from moving into institutions in the first place.

Meeting the order’s requirements would force DHHS to divert its attention from its long-term plans to achieve short-term goals, said state Deputy Attorney General Michael Wood.

“Money, human capital, diverted resources, and a complete retinkering of the state’s historic planning, strategic planning. The planning for the long-term is going to have to be pushed aside and emergency, rapid, short-term planning is going to be imposed with the eye towards meeting the July 1 date and the other dates that follow,” Wood said.

In his November order, Baddour criticized DHHS for not following recommendations detailed in its own plan.

On Friday, Baddour questioned the contention that DHHS would be irreparably harmed by following his order during its appeal.

DHHS seems to be perpetually developing plans that it doesn’t act on, Baddour said.

“In some ways, I feel like for two or three years it’s been ‘planning, planning, planning,’ and when it comes time to act, now we want to say ‘the planning still needs to happen.’ So instead of acting, we need to plan. What about the people who need the services and what about doing something for them? When does that happen?” Baddour asked.

Grafstein said the goals set out for DHHS in the order over the next year or two are modest.

The core issue is whether the state is going to address the conditions that keep people institutionalized, she said.

“The state has shown it won’t do those things voluntarily,” Grafstein said. “It won’t get at the core of the problems with the I/DD system. And that’s why we’ve asked for accountability.”

NC bill requiring schools to out transgender students to parents draws fire

Sen. Amy Galey

Parents, teachers, and the ACLU of North Carolina criticized a controversial bill moving through the state Senate that would require schools tell parents if their children want to use different names or pronouns at school.

Called the “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” Senate bill 49 mirrors proposed legislation the Senate approved last year, with a few changes. Instruction on gender identity, sexuality, and sexual activity would be prohibited in kindergarten through fourth grade.

Last year’s bill did not get a hearing in the House, but the bill would have an easier time this year overcoming a potential veto.

The bill contains a list of information to which parents would be entitled, and ways they should be able to obtain it. For example, schools would have to provide information online about textbooks and other instructional materials used in classrooms and establish ways for parents to object to them.

“Parents do not surrender their children to government schools for indoctrination opposed to the family’s values,” said Sen. Amy Galey, an Alamance County Republican and one of the bill’s main sponsors.

The provision that drew the most fire was the requirement for schools to out LGBTQ students to their parents.

Schools telling parents about name or pronoun changes before the students are ready could compromise students’ safety, some of the bill’s opponents told the Senate Education/Higher Education Committee on Wednesday.

“Many students feel comfortable changing their names and pronouns at school, but may not feel as comfortable doing so at home, due to possible lack of support from their parents,” said high school junior Callum Bradford.

“Notifying parents of their child’s name or pronoun change before the child is ready to tell them directly leaves us more vulnerable and unprotected,” Bradford said. “Many LGBTQ students are already terrified to come out to their family or friends. And this bill only adds an extra obstacle for them. We deserve supportive environments where we can be safe and learn to be social.”

The NC Family Policy Council and the NC Values Coalition, two conservative organizations, support the bill.

Schools withholding information about children changing their name or pronouns “is a breech of trust and violation of a parent’s right to know,” said John Rustin, president and executive director of the Family Policy Council.

But most of the public comments were in opposition. Ann Webb, senior policy counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina, said the right to informational privacy extends to students at school.

“Students have a constitutional right to share or withhold information about their sexual orientation or gender identity from their parents, teachers or other parties,” she said.

“This bill undermines certain children’s safety and is ultimately a part of a national campaign to erase the existence of LGBT students and adults.”

A number of states have passed, are considering, or have implemented anti-LGBTQ laws and policies.

Critics of Senate bill 49 call it North Carolina’s version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.

States have or are considering laws banning gender-affirming medical care for minors.

Eighteen states have passed laws prohibiting transgender student athletes from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity, according to MAP.

Jack Turnwald, a trans nonbinary former public school teacher, told the committee they watched queer youth suffer in schools.

“It is unsafe at present to be a trans educator or student in hostile states like ours,” they said.

This bill perpetuates the harm of silencing queer youth and keeping communities ignorant instead of providing the information necessary for folks to understand and support one another. Under the guise of parental rights you are trying to criminalize queerness. You want your children to share their pronouns and come out to you rather than legislating educators to traumatically out them? Try creating an inclusive environment at home that supports your child’s safety.”

At a news conference before the committee meeting, Galey raised the possibility that a Durham Public School policy may violate the bill’s provisions.

“There may be some kind of shielding of parents knowing about the child’s name or pronouns at school,” she said.

The Durham County Board of Education approved a policy last year supporting LGBTQ students that acknowledges some students’ concerns about telling parents.

“In some cases, transgender students may not want their parents to know about their transgender status,” the Durham policy says. “These situations must be addressed on a case-by-case basis and will require schools to balance the goal of supporting students with the requirement that parents be kept informed about their children. The paramount consideration in such situations is the health and safety of the student.”

Requests for help paying for heat increased this winter in NC

Image: Mecklenburg County government

More North Carolina residents are asking for help paying their heating bills this winter following a jump in costs.

Wake County has seen a 46% increase in applications to the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, to 9,413 this year, according to an email from the county’s communications office.

Applications statewide for help from the program are up 5% this year over the same time last year, to 117,345, the NC Department of Health and Human Services said in an email.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecast that households will spend 28% more on natural gas this winter compared to last winter, and 27% more on heating oil.

Most of North Carolina’s $125.3 million for the program comes from a federal block grant. The omnibus bill Congress passed in December included another $5 billion for energy assistance that will be spread across the country. DHHS does not yet how much of that money the state will receive.

The state allocates LIEAP money to counties based on a formula that includes population and households using Food and Nutrition Services benefits, commonly called food stamps.

Households can apply through March 31 or until the money runs out. Successful applicants for the one-time annual vendor payment must meet income eligibility criteria.

As of late last week, the state had $32 million in program funds remaining, and all counties had money available.

NC House staffer with history of extremist views resigns after just weeks on the job

Carlton Huffman had a long record of espousing controversial views about race, immigrants, and North Carolina history before he started a job with the General Assembly earlier this month.

According to an online staff listing, Huffman was on the staff of the Joint Legislative Committee of Governmental Operations working for the House Republican majority.

That brief tenure ended yesterday however when, as first reported by WRAL, Huffman resigned.

Huffman appeared on a far-right radio show in 2009 and 2010 called the “Political Cesspool.” On one episode, he discussed “cultural genocide in the South.” In another about European politics, Huffman praised Dutch politician Gerrt Wilder as a “firebrand critic of Islam” who “stands up for our European people.” He lauded the far-right British National Party, which wants to end all immigration into Britain, for “standing up for the white Europeans left in Great Britain.”

An anonymous tip about Huffman emailed to journalists Wednesday included links to a Political Cesspool radio interview and blog posts in which Huffman allegedly used a pseudonym.

Huffman told WRAL he was once a member of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens, but left when it openly expressed anti-Semitism.

Huffman did not return a phone call made to his office Wednesday afternoon. WRAL quoted Huffman disavowing the views he previously espoused.

This is at least the second time Huffman worked at the state legislature. While working for former Republican Rep. Jonathan Jordan in 2011, Huffman left an anonymous letter on state senators’ desks before they were to begin debate on pardoning former Gov. William Holden.

Holden was governor from 1868-1871 and was impeached for his efforts to suppress the Ku Klux Klan in Alamance County. Huffman’s letter attacked Holden as corrupt.

Leaving information anonymously on senators’ desks was against Senate rules.

Huffman resigned from his job with Jordan soon afterwards, Policy Watch reported.

In a brief interview Thursday, House Speaker Tim Moore told Policy Watch he did not remember the anonymous letter from 2011 and knew nothing about Huffman’s radio interviews or writings.

Huffman’s recent Facebook posts appear to not reflect some of his views from the early 2000s.

He had posted a photo of Civil Rights icons Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis to the page on Jan. 15 of this year and has previously commemorated Juneteenth.

Last June, CNN reported that Huffman was among many who texted former President Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows on January 6, 2021 pleading with him to help halt the insurrection on Capitol Hill:

At 2:34 p.m., North Carolina-based Republican strategist Carlton Huffman wrote, “You’ve earned a special place in infamy for the events of today. And if you’re the Christian you claim to be in your heart you know that.”

On his LinkedIn page — which still listed the North Carolina House job as of yesterday — he describes himself as a “conservative patriot” and lists recent work as the regional field director for the Herschel Walker for U.S. Senate campaign, the political director for the recently unsuccessful Wisconsin Republican Attorney General candidate Eric Toney, and three other positions, including six years with the Republican Party of Wisconsin.