The feud between North Carolina’s legislative leaders and its chief law enforcement official escalated Friday, with lawmakers hiring outside counsel to defend a controversial law and Attorney General Roy Cooper calling their decision “a waste of taxpayer money.”
It’s the latest battle between Republican lawmakers and Cooper, a Democrat who’s running for governor.
Senate Leader Phil Berger of Eden and House Speaker Tim Moore of Kings Mountain announced they’ve hired private attorneys to defend a 2015 law allowing magistrates to opt out of performing same-sex marriages.
They argue that Cooper can’t defend a law he has publicly criticized.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
“Once again, Roy Cooper is publicly disparaging the case of his clients – the people of North Carolina – and instead arguing the opposition’s case for them,” they said in a statement. “Nobody in North Carolina would accept this behavior from his or her private lawyer, and the taxpayers should not have to in this case.”
In December, a team of Charlotte lawyers filed suit in federal court on behalf of three North Carolina couples.
Though Cooper has publicly said he would have vetoed the measure known as Senate Bill 2, he said that has little bearing on executing his constitutional duty to defend the state.
“Our attorneys will do their job, just as they’ve done in defending numerous pieces of legislation that I’ve personally disagreed with,” he said after an appearance in Charlotte. “It’s a waste of taxpayer money to pay additional counsel to defend this matter.”
Cooper said his staff attorneys are professionals. “They have their personal opinions as well,” he said. “But they know how to represent the state and defend the law.”
It’s not the first time lawmakers have criticized Cooper, who has said he personally opposes much of the legislation passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly. But his defense of such legislation has even drawn fire from another Democrat.
Durham businessman Ken Spaulding, who’s challenging Cooper in the March 15 gubernatorial primary, has criticized the attorney general’s defense of GOP measures such as the 2013 election law, which includes the requirement for voter IDs.
Meanwhile, in court documents filed this week, attorneys for Berger and Moore criticized the attorney general. Though Cooper’s office is actually on their side in the courtroom, they said his statements “have utterly compromised” his role.
“Simply put, the Attorney General’s ability to adequately defend Senate Bill 2 is compromised … by his public advocacy campaign against the very law that he is tasked with defending,” they wrote. “There is no way … the Attorney General can properly discharge his responsibility of defending a statute that he has so publicly denigrated.”
To defend the law, legislative leaders hired a legal team that includes Charlotte lawyer Bob Potter and the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom. It’s unclear how much the team will be paid.
The Associated Press reported in November that over $3 million in outside legal costs had been billed to the General Assembly since July 2014 to defend state laws.
That year lawmakers hired outside counsel to defend the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Cooper had refused, saying no arguments were left.
“If the law is clear then you don’t continue to defend a case,” Cooper said Friday. “Remember, we had been defending the case for over a year. But the 4th Circuit (Court of Appeals) ruled that it was unconstitutional along with every single federal judge across the country who had heard the case.”
Speaking to Charlotte’s Uptown Democratic Forum, Cooper said he would even defend Republican Gov. Pat McCrory if the governor were to cancel a contract to build Interstate 77 toll lanes and end up in court. McCrory has declined to cancel the state’s contract with the Spanish firm Cintra, despite appeals from many north Mecklenburg residents and lawmakers.
Cooper said he would not have signed the contract at all. But he declined to say whether he would cancel it.
Last month the McCrory administration said Cooper tacitly supported the controversial toll lane contract when his office failed to raise objections during a routine review. A Cooper spokeswoman said at the time that attorneys reviewed the contract “to determine if it’s legal, not whether it’s good policy.”
“When you’re an executive, you need to accept responsibility for your decisions and not try to shift the blame,” Cooper said Friday.
News & Observer reporter Craig Jarvis contributed.