Cooper vs. Republicans: Lawsuit puts voters in middle of power struggle

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

RALEIGH, NC (WTVD) -- It's a case involving all three branches of government and it has major implications for North Carolina voters.

Attorneys representing Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, and the Republican-led General Assembly met in a Wake County courtroom on Wednesday to argue before a panel of three judges on whether two proposed constitutional amendments are being presented to voters in a fair and accurate way.

The amendments, passed overwhelmingly by the GOP-led Legislature, could dramatically alter the balance of power in state government by giving new responsibilities and influence from the executive to the legislative branch.

Despite his own opposition to the proposed amendments, the core argument of Cooper's case is about how the proposed amendments will appear on the November ballot in questions posed to voters. The two amendments challenged by Cooper are slated to appear as follows:


Constitutional amendment to implement a nonpartisan merit-based system that relies on professional qualifications instead of political influence when nominating Justices and judges to be selected to fill vacancies that occur between judicial elections.


Constitutional amendment to establish a bipartisan Board of Ethics and Elections to administer ethics and election laws, to clarify the appointment authority of the Legislative and the Judicial Branches, and to prohibit legislators from serving on boards and commissions exercising executive or judicial authority.

Speaking before the panel, attorney John Wester blasted those questions as "deceiving" and "corrupt," saying voters will have no idea about exactly what constitutes a "nonpartisan merit-based system" or what it means "to clarify the appointment authority", as the questions read.

Instead of responding directly to questions about the ballot, attorneys for House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) and Senate President Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) warned against judges inserting themselves into an election issue and setting a precedent of "irreparable harm."

"Basically the decision in a courtroom here in Raleigh would pull from consideration the amendment from everybody," said attorney Martin Warf. "The court should not get involved."

If the governor wins the suit, the proposed amendments and their assigned questions would be removed from the ballot.

Besides having the November election just three months away, the judges must also make a quick decision to allow for appeals, if necessary. According to election officials, there is also a high priority to finalize and print ballots to meet a September 7th deadline for mail-in absentee ballots, in which case ballots must be finalized by August 17th.

Should there be a delay, state law permits the court to reduce the 60-day statutory deadline for by-mail ballots to as few as 45 days before the election (absentee by-mail ballots must be available by Sept. 22 under federal law). That would mean ballot data would have to be ready by about Sept. 1.

Adding to the urgency of the suit, the five living former governors of North Carolina are filing a brief supporting Cooper. The unprecedented move follows the group's historic news conference on August 13th announcing their own bipartisan opposition to the proposed amendments.