Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Retired Judge Don Stephens speaking out against amendments in more ways than one

Retired Judge Don Stephens will be silenced no more.

The former Superior Court judge of 33 years currently appears in a TV ad opposing two “power grab” amendments as part of the Stop Deceptive Amendments campaign and he penned a column over the weekend about his participation.

“It was easy to say yes, because as a trial judge on the Superior Court for 33 years it was my job to call it like it is,” he wrote for the Citizen Times. “To be fiercely independent, apart from partisan politics, an umpire to call the balls and strikes when politicians step over the line.”

He goes on: “It is the judge who tells the governor or the legislature when they have over-reached or over-stepped their authority or when they have violated the Constitution.

That is exactly what has happened with these two amendments that give the legislature the power to fill judicial vacancies and the Board of Ethics and Elections.”

Stephens has been speaking out against lawmakers’ efforts to reform the judiciary since he retired last year. He even tried to talk to lawmakers directly at the end of last year about their plans but they didn’t listen.

Now he’s taken his show on the road to talk to North Carolina voters directly about the constitutional amendments lawmakers are using to reform the judiciary.

“Because these amendments corrupt the integrity of the judiciary and violate the equal balance of power in our democracy, these amendments are opposed by every past governor and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, both Democrats and Republicans. Governors Jim Hunt, Jim Martin, Mike Easley, Bev Perdue, Pat McCrory and Roy Cooper have put partisan politics aside and stand united against this power grab by the state legislature,” he wrote in the Citizen-Times piece. “I implore you to join them and vote against these destructive amendments.”

Read the full Citizen-Times piece here. See Stephens’ TV ad below.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Cooper swiftly reinstates boards, commissions to help hurricane recovery

Gov. Roy Cooper is reconstituting six state boards and commissions to ensure the continuity of effort related to Hurricane Florence recovery, his office reported Monday.

A three-judge panel in Wake County Superior Court in August declared unconstitutional the statutes which provided for the appointment of members to six state boards and commissions, leaving these boards unable to operate. Those boards are: Clean Water Management Trust Fund Board of Trustees; Parks and Recreation Authority; Private Protective Services Board; State Building Commission; Child Care Commission; and Rural Infrastructure Authority.

Cooper signed six executive orders — in accordance with state law and consistent with the court order — reestablishing the continued operation of those six boards and commissions that have final executive decision-making authority.

“It is important to note that the statutes regarding the powers and duties of these boards and commissions remain in effect,” the Governor’s Office noted in a news release. “Only the proportion of membership allotted to the legislative and executive branches is addressed through these executive orders.”

A 2016 North Carolina Supreme Court decision found that North Carolina law requires the Governor have sufficient control over executive boards and commissions, which means the Governor appoints a majority of the members. The three-judge panel’s August ruling is based on this North Carolina Supreme Court decision, according to the release.

The judges found that the statutes establishing these six boards and commissions failed to allocate a majority of appointments to the Governor.

“These boards and commissions do important work for the people of North Carolina,” the release states. “Several of them have meetings scheduled in the coming weeks that directly impact North Carolinians recovering from Hurricane Florence. For example, the State Building Commission should receive briefs on emergency repair work. The Rural Infrastructure Authority needs to be able to consider JDIG grants to economic development projects in disaster counties.”

Cooper’s Office states it is urgent that the Governor take swift action to reconstitute the boards and commissions to do the state’s business, because, in part, of the widespread damage wrought by Hurricane Florence.

The executive orders signed today can be found here:

Executive Order No. 68: Reconstituting the Child Care Commission

Executive Order No. 69: Reconstituting the Clean Water Management Trust Fund Board of Trustees

Executive Order No. 70: Reconstituting the North Carolina Parks and Recreation Authority

Executive Order No. 71: Reconstituting the Private Protective Services Board

Executive Order No. 72: Reconstituting the Rural Infrastructure Authority

Executive Order No. 73: Reconstituting the State Building Commission

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Report: Supreme Court races this year could see millions in dark money

The Supreme Court race in North Carolina is one of at least five the Brennan Center for Justice is keeping a close eye on for an influx of dark money.

The organization, a non-partisan public policy and law institute that focuses on the fundamental issues of democracy and justice, reported in mid-September that in the past two months, outside groups like the Judicial Crisis Network and the NRA spent more than $8 million to support or oppose Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

With 29 states holding supreme court elections this November, they expect the same groups to turn their attention to state judicial races.

“Million-dollar outside spending, misleading attack ads and partisanship are fast becoming hallmarks of state judicial elections,” said Douglas Keith, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “And these are just some of today’s threats to judicial independence. State legislatures are working to increase their control over, or their partisan advantage in state courts. The president has attacked judges. Now, national groups that conceal their donors will likely again pump millions into state supreme court races.”

The Brennan Center is tracking, analyzing and publishing data on television spending in the state campaigns leading up to the November 6 elections. Detailed ad data for individual candidates and groups, including spending estimates and storyboards provided by Kantar Media/CMAG, will be available on the Center’s Buying Time page.

Keith said this week that the Center had not yet seen any ads in North Carolina for the state Supreme Court race. It is expected to be a contentious race though, as there has already been litigation over one of the two Republican candidates — Chris Anglin.

Anglin changed his voter registration from Democratic to Republican before filing as a candidate. He is challenging Republican incumbent Barbara Jackson and Democrat Anita Earls. The judicial races are partisan this year.

The Brennan Center reported that North Carolina saw $5.4 million in spending the 2016 election of now Justice Mike Morgan, which shifted the court’s ideological balance to the left. $4.7 million of that spending was from outside groups that partially or completely conceal their donors.

Other states the organization is keeping a close eye on include Arkansas, Michigan and West Virginia.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

NAACP asks for voting accommodations for hurricane-impacted communities

Kelvin Thompson, a Robeson County resident, speaks about being impacted by the hurricane. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Kelvin Thompson still hadn’t recovered from Hurricane Matthew in 2016 when Hurricane Florence turned his life upside down again a couple weeks ago.

“It’s been painful,” he said Monday after a press conference outside the legislature.

The North Carolina NAACP gathered there the day before lawmakers were scheduled to return to Raleigh for a special session on hurricane recovery. The organization has asked for immediate emergency action of the release of hurricane relief resources to the fullest extent possible and for the state to take measures to ensure those affected by the recent natural disaster would still be able to partake in the midterm elections.

Thompson is one of those people. He and his family are staying with relatives now, but they were recently in a Lumberton shelter.

His home flooded in 2016 and hadn’t yet been repaired and his car flooded during Hurricane Florence — now he has to find rides everywhere, including to the community college classes he takes. He asked lawmakers to consider impacted-communities’ needs.

“There are a lot of people who don’t have the necessities they need,” he said.

The NAACP has officially asked the Governor, lawmakers and the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement in three different letters to extend the voter registration deadline by at least three business days in the affected counties — Beaufort, Bladen, Brunswick, Carteret, Columbus, Craven, Cumberland, Duplin, Greene, Harnett, Hoke, Hyde, Johnston, Jones, Lee, Lenoir, Montgomery, Moore, New Hanover, Onslow, Pamlico, Pender, Pitt, Richmond, Robeson, Sampson, Scotland, Wayne and Wilson.

The organization has also asked to extend the absentee ballot deadline for hurricane-impacted counties to 5 p.m. the day prior to Election Day and to allow local churches and community organizations to assist hurricane-impacted voters in obtaining, preparing and submitting absentee ballots. And finally, they have asked for early voting and Election Day accommodations for certain communities.

“We are in a time where building within while battling without is no longer just a saying but a real way of life that each one of us needs to remember as we move through these final days before early voting begins,” said the Rev. Dr. Anthony T. Spearman, president of the N.C. NAACP. “We are truly in a battle – a battle for our very lives, a battle that cannot be won without the constitutional weapon of equal protection under the law.”

Spearman expressed some skepticism about lawmakers’ motives, noting that they have previously implemented deceptive plans and that the NAACP would be back for the special session tomorrow to keep a watchful eye on the public’s business.

Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) tweeted today that his office supported extending voter registration until Oct. 15 in impacted areas, funding additional voter education efforts for displaced individuals and allowing quick replacement of damaged voting sites.

“I let all members of the House from both parties know of my ideas last week,” he tweeted. “No need for name-calling on this issue. We’re all working to help hurricane-impacted families and voters.”

Caitlin Swain, co-director of Forward Justice, said at the Monday press conference that they want to take the worry about voting access off the table for people who are focused on recovering from the hurricane. She said at least 1,200 voters have been displaced and are not in their homes after the storm.

“What we have asked for is simple accommodations that will allow for voters to know that when early voting begins and when Election Day comes around, your voice will be heard, and that voice is essential for being able to ensure that the recovery efforts themselves serve the people who are most impacted in these communities,” she said.

Sylvia Barnes, president of the Goldsboro/Wayne county chapters, spoke at the conference about some of the impacts in her area — she said roads were still closed from flooding damage and two shelters had to be closed because of damage.

“You cannot imagine unless you have been in one of these areas what the devastation is and how people feel so lost,” she said.

The House and Senate are scheduled to convene at 10 a.m. tomorrow, and a joint appropriations meeting is set for 11 a.m. Read the NAACP’s full request below.

Naacp Ncga Letter by NC Policy Watch on Scribd

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Judges plan to make quick decision in mid-decade redistricting case

Just because lawmakers were successful in correcting two Wake County districts that were unconstitutionally gerrymandered doesn’t mean they had to alter four more.

That was the argument made Friday by Southern Coalition for Social Justice Senior Voting Rights Attorney Allison Riggs on behalf of the North Carolina NAACP, the League of Women Voters of NC, Democracy NC, the A. Philip Randolph Institute of NC and four individual plaintiffs.

They are challenging the constitutionality of four state House districts in Wake County based on a state constitution prohibition on mid-decade redistricting.

Riggs told the three-judge panel that absent a court order requiring the redrawing of the four districts in question, the state constitution requires them to remain unaltered.

“Substituting one constitutional violation in 2017 for another doesn’t remedy the injury voters suffer when they’re deprived of legal electoral districts year after year,” she said. “The time for a full fix is now.”

Phil Strach, the attorney representing the legislative defendants, argued that when lawmakers used race the way they did the first time around, that policy created a ripple effect in all the districts. To correct the gerrymanders, they had to err on the side of caution and correct all of Wake County, not just the unconstitutional districts and bordering areas.

“t’s very easy to Monday morning quarterback a redistricting claim,” he said. “Anyone can take hot shots at what the legislature did.”

Strach said lawmakers corrected the federal issue of racial gerrymandering — it may not have been the best way, but it was their way, and the correction is what mattered most.

“The federal remedy would trump the state constitutional requirement,” he added. “We think the court here can avoid the [state] constitutional issue altogether because it’s undisputed that the [federal] constitutional violations were fixed by the legislature.”

Strach also said that when a case comes down to differing interpretations of the state constitution — like in this instance — “then the General Assembly wins.”

The federal constitutional issues of racial gerrymandering stem from the North Carolina v. Covington case.

Riggs took issue with Strach’s characterization of their case as Monday morning quarterbacking because she said lawmakers were told before submitting their districts they didn’t have to alter the four in question. Because of that, and because of alternative maps in evidence, the court, she reiterated, can conclude that lawmakers could remedy the two racially gerrymandered districts without altering the four in question.

Riggs also pointed out that there is not a constitutional avoidance principle that allows them to ignore the case altogether as Strach suggested they do.

“These plaintiffs have rights,” she said.

The three-judge panel — Judges Paul Ridgeway, Joseph Crosswhite and Alma Hinton — took the arguments under advisement and indicated they planned to make a decision in the case soon.