Judges block North Carolina law limiting Governor Roy Cooper's powers

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Gov. Roy Cooper.

Three North Carolina Superior Court judges have temporarily halted a new law that subjects Gov. Roy Cooper's Cabinet members to state Senate confirmation.


The news wasn't welcomed by top Republicans in the General Assembly.

On Wednesday, Sen. Wesley Meredith (R-Cumberland), the co-chair of the Senate Commerce and Insurance Committee, said the purpose of the confirmations was to "implement a transparent and fair process to determine whether Gov. Cooper's proposed cabinet secretaries are capable, qualified, without conflicts of interest, and willing to follow the laws of our state and nation."

"This process is about good government, and North Carolina's constitution clearly provides - in black and white - for the Senate to undertake this duty," Meredith said.

Meredith also stated that a nearly identical federal process was currently taking place in Washington D.C.

The attempt by three judges to stop today's proceedings is unprecedented in state history. Never before has a judge told the representatives elected by the citizens that they cannot hold a committee meeting as allowed by the constitution.

The Committee is here today and ready to proceed. However, we are going to delay this meeting because the Acting Secretary is not present. But make no mistake: the General Assembly will meet to review the qualifications of Gov. Cooper's cabinet nominees as allowed by the constitution, and we are going to get answers to questions regarding their qualifications, potential conflicts of interest and willingness to obey the law.

Governor Cooper also issued a statement Wednesday:

"We need to put these partisan confirmation games behind us and get on with repealing HB2, raising teacher pay and getting better jobs for North Carolinians. The court is absolutely correct in their decision and should not be intimidated by threats from legislative leaders."

The judge's decision is only temporary. A full hearing on the preliminary injunction is set for Friday.

Cooper sued over the law last month, but asked the judicial panel to step in now because a Senate committee scheduled time Wednesday to ask questions of Larry Hall, Cooper's choice to run the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

An order being sought by Cooper would block the Senate from exercising the authority they claim at least until a further hearing set for Friday, when judges would weigh postponing the law's enforcement until an ultimate resolution of the court challenge.

The law was one of several provisions approved by the General Assembly just two weeks before Cooper took office that reduced or checked his powers as governor. The moves were criticized by Democrats as a partisan effort to undermine the authority of the governor and Cooper sued the legislative leaders.

RELATED: Cooper names Cabinet members for commerce, gov't operations

Legislative leaders say the confirmation law is sound and in line with a provision in the state Constitution subjecting gubernatorial nominees to the "advice and consent" of a majority of senators.

But Jim Phillips, one of Cooper's attorneys, told the judges that legislators misconstrued the constitutional authority to apply to the governor's department heads. In effect, the General Assembly is claiming authority "to in effect veto the governor's cabinet choices," Phillips said.

Cooper's top aides have warned that the governor's appointments would be forced under the law to waste a lot of time preparing for Senate hearings when they should be learning about state operations and ensuring things are running smoothly.

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"There are multiple hearings and multiple votes for each Cabinet secretary" planned by the Senate, Phillips said.

Martin Warf, an attorney for Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, countered that Cooper can nominate, supervise and control his Cabinet officers, but the state Constitution specifically gives the Senate advice and consent powers.

"Who are we to question how they exercise that power?" Warf asked.

Another lawyer for the legislative leaders, Noah Huffstetler, said the confirmation process will be much less arduous than what Phillips has detailed.

Senate Republicans have said they are aiming only to determine in a public forum whether to determine whether Cooper's choices are capable of performing the job, lacked conflicts of interest and planned to follow the law.

It's a charade," said Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., D-Durham. "It's foolish. It's nonsense. They should respect the order of this court."

Moore called the ruling a huge overstep and says lawmakers have the right to review nominees.

"I don't understand what the concern is about having a public vetting of appointments," Moore said. "I don't think the Governor frankly should be picking this fight with the General Assembly because I don't think it needs to be. I think it's one where the General Assembly is trying to follow its constitutional mandate."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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