McCrory’s rejection of attorney picks delays Civitas same-day registration lawsuit

Gov. Pat McCrory’s office on Tuesday rejected the State Board of Elections’ choice of lawyers for a pending lawsuit challenging same-day registrations – prompting a delay in a scheduled court hearing on the case.

The conservative Civitas Institute is suing the State Board of Elections to delay counting ballots cast using same-day registration. The lawsuit, filed last week, addresses the more than 90,000 people who registered to vote and voted on the same day prior to the Nov. 8 general election.

Civitas says in the lawsuit that there’s not enough time between their registration and the State Board of Elections counting their ballots for the local county boards of election to verify applicants’ addresses. The group wants those ballots removed until the verification process is complete. One of Civitas’ primary donors is businessman Art Pope, the former budget director for McCrory.

The State Board of Elections has a Wednesday deadline to file its response to the lawsuit, so on Sunday its selected four attorneys, three of which work for the firm of Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey & Leonard LLP. Under state law, the governor’s office must approve the hiring of outside attorneys.

The request was sent to McCrory’s general counsel, Bob Stephens, on Sunday afternoon. Stephens responded by asking for a check of any conflicts of interest involving the four attorneys; the elections board provided the information and Stephens then rejected three of the four attorneys named in an email Tuesday morning.

“The request to retain the firm of Brooks Pierce and the other individual Brooks Pierce lawyers referenced in the letter is not approved,” Stephens wrote, without explaining his reasons.

With a deadline looming, elections board staff attorney Josh Lawson wrote to board members Tuesday, sounding the alarm that Stephens’ decision might put the agency at a disadvantage in the lawsuit.

“I believe the defense of our agency will be materially prejudiced absent immediate action to secure additional representation in this case,” Lawson wrote, adding that he’ll seek a one-day extension of the court’s deadline and prepare the documents himself with other in-house attorneys.

Late Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge James Dever granted the extension, giving the State Board of Elections until 5 p.m. Monday to file its response. A hearing on the lawsuit, originally set for Friday, will now be held Dec. 8.

The Civitas Institute had called for “expedited review” of the lawsuit because it wants a ruling before the state finalizes election results.

While Stephens did not identify any conflicts of interest in his rejection letter, one of the attorneys in the Brooks Pierce firm is Jim Phillips, who is serving as co-chairman of Democrat Roy Cooper’s transition team. Phillips is not one of the attorneys the elections board wanted to hire. The Brooks Pierce firm includes dozens of attorneys in three offices across the state.

Spokesmen for the governor’s office could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

State Board of Elections director Kim Strach on Tuesday rejected the suggestion that any of the attorneys would have a conflict of interest.

“No legal conflict exists,” she said. “The attorneys from Brooks Pierce chosen to represent the State Board are well-versed in election laws in North Carolina. The board received assurance that appropriate firewalls would be erected to ensure Jim Phillips was screened from any matters related to this representation.”