Politics & Government

NC attorney general refuses to defend state from HB2 legal challenge

Roy Cooper, the North Carolina attorney general, said on Tuesday that his office will not defend North Carolina officials and state agencies against the law adopted last week that strikes down locally enacted protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Cooper, a Democrat running for governor, called the measure “a national embarrassment” that “will set North Carolina’s economy back if we don’t repeal it.”

Since Gov. Pat McCrory signed the so-called HB2 into law, there has been a backlash of opposition from businesses, sporting event organizers, the White House and some elected officials outside North Carolina.

“The threats to our economy will grow even darker the longer this law stays in effect,” Cooper said at a news conference on Tuesday.

Late in the day, McCrory, who is running for re-election against Cooper, released a YouTube video in which he responds to questions about the attorney general’s stand. Unlike Monday, when McCrory told a reporter who asked about the sweep of HB2 that he had been traveling all day and was blindsided by the question, the governor prepared the video without calling a news conference.

“Some have called our state an embarrassment,” McCrory said in his video statement. “The real embarrassment is politicians not publicly respecting each other’s positions on complex issues. Unfortunately, that has occurred when legislation was passed to protect men, women and children when they use a public restroom, shower or locker room. That is an expectation of privacy that must be honored and respected. Instead, North Carolina has been the target of a vicious, nationwide smear campaign.”

Cooper, whose office put in an anti-discrimination policy in 2001, said HB2 conflicts with that state Department of Justice policy and a similar one adopted by the state Treasury Department. The policies offer protections to workers based on marital status and sexual orientation, Cooper said, adding that the state’s policy was too narrow and did not afford workers protections that were important in recruiting practices for a competitive workforce.

Because Cooper plans to defend the agencies against the state law, he said he would not defend McCrory, the UNC Board Of Governors and others named in a federal lawsuit filed on Monday.

During Cooper’s news conference, N.C. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger sent out a statement calling for Cooper to step down from his elected post.

“Roy Cooper’s refusal to defend the law makes clear he wants the ACLU to win by default in federal court what they can’t win at the ballot box and allow men to walk into locker rooms at YMCAs across our country and undress in front of young girls,” Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County, said in a statement. “His zeal for pandering for the extreme left’s money and agenda in his race for governor is making it impossible for him to fulfill his duties as attorney general – and he should resign immediately.”

Cooper responded that he had no plans to step down, that he planned to continue to do his job.

The attorney general pointed out that his office had defended the state against laws he personally didn’t agree with – citing the 2013 elections overhaul that included a voter ID provision as one. The university and UNC system board of governors has hired outside counsel to represent them on other legal issues, Cooper pointed out. And the governor, Cooper said, “has not hesitated to hire his own attorneys and we would assume he would want to do that again in this case.”

“We do our job in this office,” Cooper said. “We have seen legislation passed that hurts North Carolinians. We’ve seen legislation passed that hurts people’s ability to register to vote. Our office is required – and we have stepped up to defend those cases regardless of any other consequences. But, that fact has encouraged me to run for governor, because I know as attorney general I can’t have as much of an effect on those policies as I can running for governor.”

McCrory, in the YouTube video, criticized Cooper and contended that claims that HB2 could alter internal state agency policies was inaccurate, though neither claim has been tested in the courts.

“As the state’s attorney, he can’t select which laws he will defend and which laws are politically expedient to refuse to defend,” McCrory said. “ … When you are the state’s lawyer, you are a lawyer first and a politician second.”

Cooper’s campaign spokesman released a statement late in the day responding to McCrory’s video, accusing the governor of bending facts.

“It is unfortunate that Gov. McCrory has decided to mislead North Carolinians about the facts of this law,” said Ford Porter, spokesman for Cooper for NC. “His new law clearly strikes down protections that existed for employees of state agencies, universities, and local government across the state. Instead of misleading North Carolinians, he should do his job, focus on repealing this law, and reverse the damage being done to our economy.”

McCrory argued that HB2 is “not about demonizing one group of people.”

Cooper argued that the law allows “broad-based discrimination.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of North Carolina, Equality NC, and Lambda Legal – the four organizations standing behind the two transgender residents and lesbian law professor challenging House Bill 2 in federal court – released a joint statement praising Cooper’s decision. Cooper is still named as one of the defendant’s in the lawsuit, but he said Tuesday that his attorneys plan to handle that without revealing the legal strategy they would use.

“North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, the state’s top law enforcement official, has concluded House Bill 2 is unconstitutional and harms North Carolinians without justification,” the statement from the groups that filed the legal challenge said. “As our lawsuit highlighted yesterday, House Bill 2 singles out the LGBT community for discrimination. That’s not only incompatible with the state’s constitutional and legal obligations but also our shared values as North Carolinians.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1

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