RALEIGH (WTVD) -- A panel of judges ruled late Tuesday against the Republican-led General Assembly and ordered two proposed constitutional amendments be omitted from the November ballot.
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The amendments, if approved by voters, could drastically change the balance of power between the Executive and Legislative branches of state government. Despite his own opposition to the proposed amendments, the core argument of Cooper's case was about how the proposed amendments will appear on the November ballot in questions posed to voters.
RELATED: Cooper vs. Republicans: Lawsuit puts voters in middle of power struggle
By a vote of 2-1, the judges agreed that the ballot questions were "misleading" and "did not inform" the voters about what exactly the amendments would accomplish if passed. The judges, however, acknowledged the case will probably lead to several appeals.
Attorneys representing Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, and the Republican-led General Assembly met in a Wake County courtroom Aug. 15 to argue before the panel of three judges on whether two proposed constitutional amendments are being presented to voters in a fair and accurate way.
"We appreciate the Court's thoughtful consideration of this case," said a statement from Cooper's office. "Misleading voters about the true impact of amendments that threaten our fundamental separation of powers is wrong, as the ruling recognizes. We're pleased that the court agrees the people of North Carolina deserve accurate information and a real opportunity to express their opinions about proposed changes to our Constitution."
The North Carolina Democratic Party said the panel's ruling sent a message to Republicans.
"With these constitutional amendments, legislative Republicans clearly sought to mislead voters to rig the system in their favor," NCDP Chairman Wayne Goodwin said. "Today's order reaffirms that this is not only wrong but unconstitutional. Republicans should stop intimidating judges by threatening censure and impeachment and instead respect the rule of law and North Carolina voters by not putting intentionally misleading amendments on the ballot."
The two amendments challenged by Cooper are slated to appear as follows:
( ) FOR ( ) AGAINST
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.
( ) FOR ( ) AGAINST
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 Sept. 7 deadline for mail-in absentee ballots, in which case ballots must be finalized by Aug. 17.
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 conferenceon Aug. 13 announcing their own bipartisan opposition to the proposed amendments.
Gov. Cooper gets early win, two GOP proposed amendments ordered off November ballot