RALEIGH (AP) — Distrust of Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper by North Carolina’s Republican GOP legislative leaders has led the lawmakers to hire outside attorneys who have billed the state nearly $1.2 million dollars this past year to fight in court for GOP-favored laws.
About 98 percent of the money went to a single, politically connected law firm to represent lawmakers’ interests alongside state Justice Department attorneys also defending voting law changes. A federal appeals court held a special hearing in Charlotte on Thursday as it considers arguments by critics that last year’s changes will suppress minority voter turnout in November.
The rest of the Legislature’s mounting legal spending went to defend lawsuits challenging private school vouchers, an anti-abortion license plate and the state’s constitutional ban against same-sex marriage. The Legislature last year gave House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger the authority to hire stand-in lawyers to defend laws passed by its veto-proof conservative majorities.
Legislative leaders also have hired attorneys from labor and employment law firm Ogletree Deakins to sit alongside state Justice Department attorneys defending congressional and legislative district boundaries redrawn after the 2010 Census. The law firm has billed taxpayers about $1.8 million over several years on top of work by Cooper’s office to defend the redistricting maps.
Tillis did not respond to requests through their aides for an interview about the legislative legal spending. Attorneys for Ogletree Deakins did not respond to requests for comment. Cooper and Berger were unavailable to discuss the issue, spokeswomen said. Cooper, who has been gearing up to challenge Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in 2016, this week attended the annual leadership meeting of the state’s Teamsters union in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and won their endorsement.
Berger and Tillis have said previously their hands were forced because Cooper hasn’t wholeheartedly committed to defending some laws.
“The people of the state are entitled to have that legislation defended in court if it’s challenged,” Berger said in an August interview. “There have been instances where the attorney general has indicated reluctance to do so or has failed to do so. And so it’s appropriate for us to step in and make sure that duly-enacted laws received the appropriate defense that they’re entitled to.”
Legislative leaders have hired outside attorneys for years. They spent $131,000 for outside lawyers to work on redistricting lawsuits after the 2000 Census, according to the General Assembly’s Financial Services Division.
The practice broadened after Cooper last year urged McCrory to veto the sweeping elections law and warned the changes would face court challenges.
Cooper has said it is his duty as both an elected official and legal professional to vigorously defend the state even if he personally disagrees with arguments made by his office in court. Hiring outside lawyers “just ends up costing more money” for taxpayers, Cooper has said.
Cooper’s attorneys are defending North Carolina laws on redistricting, voter ID, and private school vouchers. Cooper also is appealing a federal court ruling that struck down part of a law requiring abortion providers to describe an ultrasound to women wanting to terminate a pregnancy.
But when Cooper didn’t appeal after a trial judge blocked scholarships for low-income children who want to attend private or religious schools, lawyers for Tillis and Berger stepped in. Cooper’s team wanted to let the case work through the courts. Doing otherwise could force families or schools to repay the money if the law is voided as unconstitutional, Cooper’s top deputy said. Voucher proponents last week persuaded a state appeals court to order the money released while the court battle proceeds.
Cooper also refused to continue defending a 2011 law creating a state “Choose Life” license plate. A federal appeals court ruled the law was unconstitutional because lawmakers refused to offer similar plates for those supporting abortion rights. Supporters argue state governments should be able to advance messages reinforcing their public policies.
Tillis and Berger signed up the Alliance Defending Freedom, a non-profit Christian group, and Elon University law professor Scott Gaylord to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court is now considering whether to weigh in.
Gaylord has charged the state $13,060, according to invoices. Gaylord did not respond to messages seeking comment. The alliance is providing attorneys in the appeal at no cost to the state, spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said.
The alliance also is representing Tillis and Berger for free in a court challenge against North Carolina’s constitutional ban against same-sex marriage that was approved by voters in 2012. Berger said he was open to hiring lawyers to defend the ban if Cooper refused. Lawmakers set aside $300,000 for legal fees this year “in defense of the North Carolina Constitution.”