North Carolina's Republican legislators stage unprecedented power grab

As N.C. GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse talked to the media at the legislature about his party's power grab this week, a protester held a sign behind him. This week Republican leaders announced a surprise special session that ended with the state's newly elected Democratic governor stripped of key powers and dozens of protesters arrested. (Photo is by WUNC reporter Jeff Tiberii and used with permission.)

When North Carolina's lame-duck Republican Gov. Pat McCrory called a special legislative session for this week to pass financial assistance for parts of the state hit by Hurricane Matthew and wildfires, his proclamation included a detail that set off alarms: the session would also address "any other matters the General Assembly elects to consider."

Fueled by a report that ran in the conservative Carolina Journal two days after the general election, many political observers speculated that the Republican-controlled legislature might introduce a bill to expand the state Supreme Court by two seats. The court flipped to Democratic control in November, and an expansion would allow McCrory to appoint more Republicans to the bench, giving back control to the GOP.

That didn't happen. Instead, as the session drew to a close late Wednesday morning, legislative leaders called yet another special session to begin just two hours later. The announcement surprised Democratic lawmakers as well as the media and the public. The leadership claimed the surprise session was impromptu but in fact they had surreptitiously requested it two days earlier.

By that evening, 28 new bills totaling 146 pages had been introduced to be debated and voted on the next morning. Much of the legislation aimed to dramatically restrict Democratic Gov.-elect Roy Cooper's powers. Judging by the length of some of the bills — one at 43 pages, another at 25 — they had been in the works for some time.

On Thursday, in a party-line vote, the Senate passed Senate Bill 4, which restructures state and county boards of elections so they are no longer controlled by the governor's party but are instead evenly divided between the two parties, inviting gridlock. It also makes state Supreme Court races officially partisan and limits the kinds of cases the court may hear. Also along party lines, the House passed House Bill 17, which shifts power away from the State Board of Education and into the hands of the newly elected Republican state superintendent, dramatically limits the number of state employees Cooper may hire or fire as governor, and makes his cabinet appointments contingent on Senate approval. 

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest (R), who presides over the state Senate, removed all public onlookers from the Senate chamber around 3:30 p.m. because noisy protesters there were disrupting the session. A few hours later, police removed the public, including journalists, from the House gallery. Seventeen protesters were arrested and charged with trespassing, including reporter Joe Killian with left-leaning N.C. Policy Watch.

The session resumed Friday morning, and the legislation passed easily and was expected to be signed by McCrory. The protesters also returned, with the public and the media again removed from the House gallery. At least 18 additional arrests were made.

The Republican lawmakers' actions drew widespread condemnation. Rev. William Barber, president of the N.C. NAACP and leader of the Forward Together Moral Movement, said they represent "deep violations" of the Democratic process.

"This madness must end now and the people's vote must be respected," he said. "It is immoral, it is unconstitutional, and this illegal session is a direct attack on the people of North Carolina."

An unprecedented display of power

As the session got underway and criticism and protests mounted, N.C. GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse claimed repeatedly that because Democrats had executed power grabs in the past it was permissible for the current legislature to do likewise today. 

For example, he referred to an incident in the mid-1980s when Democratic lawmakers attempted to restrict some of Republican Gov. Jim Martin's appointments. However, Martin told the Charlotte Observer this week that he thought some of the current legislation goes "too far," pointing to a provision of House Bill 17 that takes away the governor's ability to make appointments to the boards of trustees of all University of North Carolina campuses. 

Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of N.C. Policy Watch, acknowledged that the state's Democrats have abused their power before by stripping some powers from Republicans — "but nothing on this scale, and never with such a blatantly undemocratic process," he told Facing South.

Bob Phillips, president of the government watchdog group Common Cause North Carolina, also pointed to the unprecedented nature of this week's actions. "We've never quite seen something like what is going on now," he said. "The legislature calling a special session out of a special session in and of itself is unprecedented."

Democratic lawmakers have filed a protest over the way this week's second special session was convened, calling it unconstitutional. There are also questions over the legality of some of the legislation itself. For example, elections law expert Rick Hasen has said the changes to elections boards may violate the Voting Rights Act.

Cooper, currently the state's attorney general, and the N.C. NAACP have said they are considering legal action. 

"I will use every tool in the Governor's Office to fight for everyday North Carolinians, including the courts if necessary," Cooper said in a Thursday press conference. "[Republicans] will see me in court, and they don't have a very good track record there."