Supreme Court OKs amendments, but they still smell

Gov. Roy Cooper’s office has given incentive awards to three manufacturing companies in Halifax County in the past month.
Gov. Roy Cooper’s office has given incentive awards to three manufacturing companies in Halifax County in the past month. News & Observer photo

The Supreme Court wouldn’t block constitutional amendments, so now it’s up to voters to do so.

The NC Supreme Court on Tuesday cleared the way for two contested amendments to appear on November’s ballot. That leaves voters as the last line of defense against power-hungry legislators who want to throw out a separation of powers that has served this state well for generations.

These can seem like arcane, complicated matters, so the question is whether most voters will take the time to consider the full implications of approving each amendment. Amendment opponents, including all five living former NC governors of both parties, will have to campaign vigorously for there to be any chance that they do.

The two amendments at issue are both designed to take significant power away from the governor and give it to the legislature. Amassing power in one branch should concern voters whatever their political party, because checks and balances are essential to responsible government. Besides, who’s in charge of which branch can change at any time.

The amendments, if approved by voters, pull off a tricky feat: They would bypass the courts and make constitutional what the Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional in recent balance-of-power decisions.

Republicans responded to an earlier court ruling by improving the amendments’ language just enough to satisfy the court. But these are still badly flawed proposals that will hurt the state.

The question before the Supreme Court was whether legislators were being adequately transparent with the language that will appear on the ballot. Gov. Roy Cooper argued that the wording left out all kinds of important detail, including the amendments’ true motives. The court sided with legislative leaders, who said the wording adequately and accurately explains what the amendments will do.

The ballot language on the elections board amendment leaves out tremendous detail. The judicial vacancy amendment goes into greater detail but is worded in a complicated and confusing way. (There will be four other amendments on the ballot as well, including two the NAACP unsuccessfully fought before the Supreme Court.) They clearly were written by legislators to give them the best chance of passage, but not with so much spin as to be illegal in the eyes of the court.

The first amendment would change the makeup of the state Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement and how it is appointed. It would take away the governor’s appointment power to that board and give it to the legislature, and cut the board from nine members to eight.

The second amendment would change the way judicial vacancies are filled. Right now the governor fills those vacancies with input from practicing attorneys in the Bar. Under the amendment, the legislature would essentially fill vacancies with their preferred candidates, and could leave them there for a longer period before those interim judges face election.

These may seem like dense, far-afield questions. In fact, they are hugely consequential for how this state is governed, and voters need to put in the effort to cast an educated vote.