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Cooper sues again while court rejects elections board motion

RALEIGH (AP) The legal fight over running North Carolina’s elections didn’t end March 13 when the state Supreme Court refused Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s request to throw out the entire law creating a combined elections and ethics board.

Cooper separately filed another lawsuit the same day against Republican legislative leaders challenging the latest version of the combined board — marking his third lawsuit on the topic in 15 months.

Cooper’s private lawyers wrote that the entire law is still unconstitutional, even after the GOP-controlled General Assembly last month approved legislation tweaking the board’s composition to add a ninth member to the four Democrats and four Republicans that Cooper already would get to choose. The ninth member couldn’t be affiliated with either major party. Cooper also could remove any of the nine for whatever reason.

The Republican leaders “are simply tinkering around the edges, and they have failed, yet again, to clear the constitutional bar set” by the Supreme Court, Cooper attorney Jim Phillips wrote. Cooper also is seeking a hearing later in the week to block the latest version of the law from taking effect. Last month’s changes are anticipated to become law March 16 after a 30-day period expires.

Cooper won in the first two lawsuits, with the Supreme Court justices favoring him in a 4-3 decision in January that the second version of the law approved last April interfered “with the governor’s ability to faithfully execute the laws.”

But a three-judge panel last week decided that the Supreme Court’s ruling only meant that a portion of the law addressing the board’s membership and the governor’s powers in removing them were struck down. That law envisioned an eight-member board — four Democrats and four Republicans — that Cooper would appoint from lists provided by party leaders.

But Cooper’s lawyers said the ruling meant the whole law should be voided and asked the justices to overturn the judges’ decision. In a one-sentence ruling, the Supreme Court denied that request.

Cooper had already signaled he would sue again. Cooper has said he wants an elections board the way it was for more than a century until December 2016, when the first edition of the combined board was passed. The majority of seats were held by members of the governor’s party, in keeping with Cooper’s argument that it’s his responsibility to ensure elections are administered properly.

Republican lawmakers say a bipartisan board is the best way to make election decisions. The chairmen of the General Assembly’s election laws committee blasted Cooper for additional litigation.

“Just days after a lower court ruled against the governor, the North Carolina Supreme Court just rejected his latest attempt to prevent bipartisan elections and ethics enforcement — and yet he’s going to court again,” said a statement by Sen. Ralph Hise of Mitchell County and Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County.

Lewis and Hise said striking down the latest changes to board membership also threatens other unrelated provisions contained in the legislation approved last month related to public school funding and phasing in class-size reductions. Under that legal argument, if one portion of the legislation is struck down, everything in it must be voided. Cooper wanted the class-size changes, but said last month he wouldn’t sign the bill in part due to the election changes, setting up the 30-day wait.

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