Democracy Dies in Darkness

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Court blocks North Carolina law aimed at curbing Democratic governor's power

By Amber Phillips

February 8, 2017 at 2:26 PM

Then-North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper — now North Carolina’s governor — speaks during a forum in Charlotte in June 2016. (Chuck Burton/AP)

A North Carolina court just handed the state's new Democratic governor a symbolic win in his ongoing power struggle with the Republican state legislature.

A three-judge panel Wednesday paused a controversial law limiting Gov. Roy Cooper's powers to, among other things, appoint his cabinet without legislative consent.

The court is scheduled to have another hearing Friday to decide whether the law should be paused until March, when it will hear full arguments about whether the law limiting the governor's power is constitutional.

Related: [Amid outcry, N.C. GOP passes law to curb Democratic governor’s power]

In December, the Republican-controlled legislature pushed through broad reforms to dial back the governor's power and reorganize the state's elections oversight body in a way that limited Democrats' power. Republicans said the changes were long overdue, but the timing of the move raised eyebrows. The state's outgoing Republican governor had just lost a hard-fought reelection to Cooper, and he signed the changes into law on his way out the door.

Democrats immediately decried the reforms as a "power grab."

"They will see me in court," Cooper, the state's former attorney general, promised.

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North Carolina's Democratic governor-elect Roy Cooper says Republican lawmakers are trying to hinder his work by moving to strip powers from his office. (Reuters)

On Wednesday, Cooper hailed this first legal step as a victory.

"The court is absolutely correct in their decision and should not be intimidated by threats from legislative leaders," he said in a statement.

The GOP-led legislature did not see it the same way.

"This unprecedented move would be like the legislature telling a judge what jurors to pick to decide a case," Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore said in a joint statement.

Even though the legal battle is just beginning, both sides are moving ahead as if they won.

In the small window after Cooper was inaugurated this January and before the legislature came into session, he appointed most of his cabinet secretaries. The legislature is refusing to recognize the secretaries as heads of their departments, and on Wednesday, Republicans defiantly had a committee hearing to vet Cooper's pick to lead the veteran affairs department.

"Never before has a judge told the representatives elected by the citizens that they cannot hold a committee meeting as allowed by the constitution," Sen. Wesley Meredith (R) said in the committee hearing.

North Carolina lawmakers and Cooper also are clashing on whether to repeal the state's so-called "bathroom bill." North Carolina Republicans passed a law in March preventing municipalities from creating their own nondiscrimination ordinances, which also had the effect of requiring transgender people to use public bathrooms and locker rooms aligning with the gender on their birth certificates, not the gender with which they identify.

Related: [North Carolina lawmakers leave ‘bathroom bill’ in place]

North Carolina is the only state with such a bathroom law. There is a renewed effort among some Republicans to repeal the law amid threats that the NCAA could skip over North Carolina for years of lucrative college championship tournament games.


Amber Phillips writes about politics for The Fix. She was previously the one-woman D.C. bureau for the Las Vegas Sun and has reported from Boston and Taiwan.

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