Raw power in North Carolina: governor, legislature in court

Gov. Roy Cooper on Jan. 16, 2017.

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Lawyers for North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and the state’s legislative leaders face off in court Tuesday over whether a series of new laws diminishing the governor’s powers are constitutional.

A state panel of three trial judges will determine the outcome, though its decision can be appealed in a process that could last months.

The challenged laws require Cooper’s picks to run 10 state agencies be approved by the GOP-led Senate, strip the governor’s control over running elections, slash his hiring options and give civil service protections to hundreds of political appointees of former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

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GOP lawmakers adopted the provisions reducing Cooper’s powers during a surprise special legislative session two weeks before the Democrat took office Jan. 1.

The key argument raised by attorneys for state House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger is that North Carolina’s legislature is — and should be — dominant in a state government where the three branches of government were designed to be separate, but not equal.

“You cannot find beyond a reasonable doubt that what the General Assembly has done here is unconstitutional,” said Noah Huffstetler, attorney for Republican legislative leaders.

Cooper’s attorneys contend that even if North Carolina’s governor was established in the state constitution to be weak compared with most state executives across the country, the new laws encroach on the governor’s powers and upset the balance of powers that have developed.

“The separation of powers is a fundamental tenet of our republic and our state government,” said Jim Philips, attorney for Cooper. “The governor must be able to choose subordinates who reflect his priorities and policy views.”

The determination of Republican lawmakers to shift Cooper’s authority to legislative leaders continued last week in party-line votes. The House bills would eliminate Cooper’s ability to choose board members at more than a dozen community colleges. A separate bill was introduced to fill vacancies on the state District Court, where most criminal and civil cases get heard.

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