Since coming to power five years ago, North Carolina Republican lawmakers have spent more than $10.5 million defending controversial laws on everything from redistricting to voter ID to House Bill 2.
And the total will only grow as ongoing cases make their way through the appeals process.
Almost half the money – $4.9 million – went to defend the state’s sweeping voter law, which was overturned by a panel of federal judges.
Lawmakers spent another $3.7 million defending redistricting plans that were also overturned. And they’ve spent more than $1.2 million on behalf of HB2, which faces multiple legal challenges.
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The legal fees, disclosed under a public records request by the Observer, reflect the high stakes of the legislation as well as the partisan acrimony on both sides.
“When the Republicans are trying to significantly shift the state and put their stamp on it, you’re going to have these legal challenges,” said political scientist Michael Bitzer of Catawba College. “There may be questions … if this is the wisest spending of tax dollars. But they will say it’s in defense of their priorities and their agenda.”
The cases involve some of the major legislation passed by Republican lawmakers since taking over the General Assembly in 2011. Democrats also hired outside lawyers when they controlled the legislature, though it wasn’t immediately clear how much they spent.
Republicans say the size of their spending is because Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper – who holds a narrow lead in the governor’s race – either disparaged some laws or chose not to defend them.
“Roy Cooper’s refusal to do the job he was elected to do is the main reason the legislature has been forced to hire outside counsel, and he is squarely responsible for the increased costs on taxpayers,” said Amy Auth, a spokeswoman for Senate GOP Leader Phil Berger.
Cooper declined to defend HB2, the law passed this year restricting LGBT protections. He also chose not to defend the state’s marriage amendment after an appeals court rejected it. Cooper has said his job doesn’t require appealing every case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But he defended two dozen other GOP laws including those involving redistricting and abortion. And he defended other laws even after he publicly criticized them, such as one allowing magistrates to recuse themselves from performing same-sex marriage. GOP lawmakers hired outside counsel to defend the magistrate bill even while Cooper’s attorneys were defending it in court.
“Attorneys with our office routinely defend state laws when challenged, even when Attorney General Cooper disagrees with those laws,” Cooper spokeswoman Noelle Talley said in a statement. “Our office has defended the state in numerous recent challenges to laws.”
The Justice Department was even on the team representing the General Assembly in a separation of powers case against Gov. Pat McCrory.
But conflicts could continue no matter who’s elected governor. Democrat Josh Stein was elected attorney general while Republicans will keep veto-proof majorities in the General Assembly.
Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews, who as chair of the Senate redistricting committee helped draw the voting maps, said in some cases the legislature had no choice but to hire outside attorneys. The attorney general simply didn’t have the staff resources, he said.
“There was no option but to get some outside help because they didn’t have enough attorneys to meet the challenge of what was (several) active cases,” Rucho said.
Most of the money, nearly $8.5 million, went to the Ogletree Deakins firm. Its attorney, Thomas Farr, helped defend redistricting cases as well as the state’s sweeping voting law. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in one redistricting case on Dec. 5.
While Republicans were spending money on legal fees, so were their opponents. One document filed by challengers in a congressional redistricting case this year asked the court to award nearly $1.3 million in attorney fees.
But Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which has challenged Republican laws, said lawmakers created a “shadow” Justice Department “thereby enriching private attorneys who are unanswerable to the public and unaccountable to the voters.”
“In the voting rights and redistricting cases, the (attorney general’s) office has vigorously defended to the end the interests and legal positions of the majority party in the legislature,” she said. “The fact that so many laws have been ruled unconstitutional … perhaps suggests that their outside counsel strategy is ultimately ineffective.”
Legislators spent $203,000 on lawyers with K&L Gates to help the Justice Department defend them against McCrory in the separation of powers case, which the governor went on to win.
It spent nearly $1.1 million with the Washington, D.C. firm Schaerr Duncan to defend HB2. And it spent $103,000 with Charlotte attorney Bob Potter on several cases, including HB2.
Michael Gerhardt, a specialist in government and law at the UNC law school, said the amount spent on outside attorneys is not surprising, given the length of the cases and the firms hired.
And it could have been been spent differently, he added.
“Those of us living in North Carolina know that we don’t have as much money as we used to have,” he said. “That money paid to attorneys didn’t go to schools. That money didn’t go to protect the environment. It didn’t go to a lot of places. But they found it somewhere. And I would describe that as tragic.”