North Carolina’s six living former Supreme Court chief justices Thursday blasted two of the six constitutional amendments proposed for the fall ballot, joining Gov. Roy Cooper and his five predecessors.
Meanwhile, General Assembly leaders called a special session Friday to rewrite the ballot language to comply with a court order.
“I disagree with the court’s decision on the merits,” Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a statement. “It’s clear . . . that protracted litigation could delay ballot printing and only further the chance for voter confusion. Given those circumstances, I support a special session to write amendments that comply with the court order as quickly as possible.”
One of the contested amendments deals with judicial appointments; the other with appointments to boards and commissions. The former chief justices — two Republicans and four Democrats — said while they oppose both, one in particular “eviscerates the doctrine of separation of powers and checks and balances inherent in” the constitution.
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“All of us will vote against these two amendments,” the chiefs said in a statement signed by more than two dozen prominent attorneys. “We urge you to vote against them. And, we urge you to join us in advocating for their defeat.”
Signing the statement were former Chief Justices Rhoda Billins and I. Beverly Lake, both Republicans, and Democrats James Exum, Henry Frye, Burley Mitchell and Sarah Parker.
The statement from the six former chief justices is as unprecedented as last week’s meeting of the five former governors, including two Republicans. Former Gov. Jim Martin said the amendments were about nothing more than “power politics.” As a Republican, he said, “It’s embarrassing to me” that they were drafted by the GOP-controlled General Assembly.
Cooper has sued the legislature over the same two proposed amendments. He argues that the ballot language is misleading.
On Tuesday a three-judge panel agreed and said no ballots should be printed with the proposals. Lawyers for the General Assembly are appealing. And Cooper’s lawyers have gone directly to the state Supreme Court.
While Cooper’s suit takes issue with the ballot language for the two amendments, the former chief justices criticized the substance of the proposals.
One amendment, for example, calls for “a nonpartisan merit-based system” for judicial appointments. The chief justices called it “partisan and ... not merit-based.”
“The proposal in fact grants to the General Assembly the unrestricted authority to narrow the field of nominees to two, on a purely partisan basis, without regard for merit,” they wrote.
The other contested amendment would create a new, bipartisan state elections board and “clarify the appointment authority of the Legislative and the Judicial Branches.”
“(The) amendment appropriates the duties and powers of the executive branch to the General Assembly,” the justices said. “It eviscerates the doctrine of separation of powers and checks and balances inherent in that doctrine--two fundamental principles of the United States and North Carolina Constitutions.”
The justices did not mention the other four proposed amendments, including one that would cap the state income tax and one to require a voter ID.
One GOP legislator dismissed the justices’ concerns.
“I hope that when I’m retired in my 80s I don’t have to seek relevance in this way,” said House Rules Committee Chairman David Lewis of Harnett County.
Jim Morrill; 704-358-5059; @jimmorrill