Politics & Government

NC Gov. Cooper vetoes appeals court and elections bills

State Board of Elections members Joshua Malcolm, left, and A. Grant Whitney Jr. discuss early voting during a meeting Sept. 8, 2016, in Raleigh.
State Board of Elections members Joshua Malcolm, left, and A. Grant Whitney Jr. discuss early voting during a meeting Sept. 8, 2016, in Raleigh. tlong@newsobserver.com

Gov. Roy Cooper has vetoed bills that would cut the state appeals court by three judges and deny the governor’s political party control of the state elections board.

The legislature is likely to vote to override the vetoes.

House Bill 239 would reduce the state Court of Appeals from 15 to 12 members, which would prevent replacement of three Republican judges approaching mandatory retirement age.

Senate Bill 68 would consolidate the state elections and ethics boards. The new board would have eight members, four from each major political party, with a Republican chairman in presidential-election years and a Democratic chairman in midterm-election years. Local elections boards would also be split. A three-judge panel struck down an earlier attempt by Republicans to merge the boards.

In a statement Friday, the Democratic governor said Republicans are trying to politicize the courts.

“Having three fewer judges will increase the court’s workload and delay timely appeals,” he wrote of HB 239. “Just as bad is the real motivation of Republican legislators, which is to stack the court with judges of their own party. Earlier this session, Republican legislators already injected partisan politics into our courts by slapping political party labels on all judicial races.”

Republicans say they want to shrink the court because of its workload. The bill would also send more cases directly to the state Supreme Court.

Last month, Cooper issued his first veto to block the legislature’s restoration of partisan elections for judges. The legislature went on to enact that law through a veto override.

GOP lawmakers say the reconfigured elections boards created by SB 68 would bring more bipartisanship to elections oversight.

Cooper says the evenly split boards would lead to gridlock.

“This is the same unconstitutional legislation in another package, and it’s an attempt to make it harder for people to register and vote,” Cooper wrote.

“It’s a scheme to ensure that Republicans control state and county boards of elections in Presidential election years when the most races are on the ballot,” he wrote. “The North Carolina Republican Party has a track record of trying to influence Board of Elections members to make it harder for people to vote and have fair elections. Under this bill, that same party controls the pool of appointments of half the state and county elections boards,” he wrote.

House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger said in a statement said Cooper is fighting bipartisan cooperation with his veto of the elections board legislation.

“North Carolinians deserve a bipartisan ethics and elections board with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans to govern without partisan motivations, but Roy Cooper wants to rig the system for his own benefit, just like when he packed the Court of Appeals with Democrats while serving in the legislature,” they said.

“We have complied with the court’s order and restored the governor’s ability to make all appointments to that board, yet he is still fighting measures to increase bipartisan cooperation and undo his court packing scheme for no other reason than to preserve his own partisan advantage,” Berger and Moore wrote.

In 2000, a legislature controlled by Democrats added three seats to the Court of Appeals. Then-Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat, appointed the three judges on the day before he left office to expand the court to 15 members.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner

A few glitches

The text of Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto message on Senate Bill 68 suggests that he was sending it back to the House clerk. It should have been addressed to the Senate. And it looks like Cooper might have put his signature on the line to sign the bill before thunking the veto stamp down.

What’s more, it looks like Cooper put the wrong date on his veto messages.

“No, I just did them both this morning,” Cooper said after speaking to a group of black elected officials on Friday. But he dated his action the 20th, which was Thursday.

“Then it should have been the 21st. We’ll figure that out. Sorry about that. I signed them this morning,” Cooper said.

Given that there were several small errors, does he have any concerns about vetoes not holding up?

“No,” he said. “It’s clearly stamped ‘veto.’”