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NC legislative session challenge rejected by judges

RALEIGH (AP) A panel of North Carolina trial court judges has rejected arguments by a government reform group and local residents that a special session of the General Assembly violated the state constitution.

The case centers on a December 2016 session in which Republicans passed laws tilting the balance of power toward the legislative branch and away from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Those moves came just two weeks before Cooper was sworn in after he narrowly defeated GOP Gov. Pat McCrory.

Common Cause and other individuals who sued last year said the three-day session was illegal because legislators called it so quickly — giving two hours’ notice as another session called by McCrory on hurricane relief had ended. They said GOP leaders failed to give the public the time to “instruct their representatives,” which the constitution says is a right.

In a ruling released May 29, the judges wrote that the plaintiffs failed to show their constitutional rights were violated and described the difficulty of measuring when the right to instruct is violated.

“This court cannot find any support for reading this clause to include a specific right to notice of legislative action, much less any indication of the time or manner necessary for such notice that would create a justiciable standard for this court to consider,” the judges wrote.

While some who sued were unable to communicate with their legislators before bills were approved, other people were able to contact their lawmakers, according to the panel’s opinion. The bills were posted online, some opponents of the GOP legislation held a protest at the Legislative Building and legislators had email addresses, phone lines and offices where critics could lodge their complaints, he said.

“It is true that reasonable people may disagree about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the manner of passage of the challenged legislation,” the judges wrote. “However, without a clear constitutional violation, this is a policy or political disagreement.”

The approved bills during the session subjected Cooper’s Cabinet to Senate confirmation, made appeals court elections officially partisan races and moved powers from the State Board of Education to the state schools superintendent. The content of these laws has been challenged separately in court. Other changes shifting control over administering elections and reducing the number of employees Cooper could hire already have been struck down.

Common Cause is disappointed in the ruling from Judges Wayland Sermons, Marty McGee and Todd Pomeroy and will review its appeal options, according to Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina. “Regardless, we will continue to stand up for the right of North Carolinians to instruct their lawmakers and to fully participate in the legislative process,” Phillips said in a release.

Joseph Kyzer, a spokesman for House Speaker Tim Moore — one of the named defendants along with Senate leader Phil Berger and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest — said May 29 that the legislative leaders’ offices had yet to review the opinion and couldn’t immediately comment.

Attorneys for the GOP leaders and the state had argued they had followed the correct process to call legislators into session. The judges agreed. “This court finds the actions of the legislature are not unconstitutional” and the call of the session “conforms to the textual requirements of the North Carolina Constitution,” the ruling reads.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs also argued unsuccessfully that the legislators’ actions harm their clients’ constitutional rights to due process.

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