Cooper is coy as GOP pushes health-law suit

Conservatives want state to join a legal challenge to the health overhaul.

Staff WriterApril 8, 2010 

There have been rallies, petitions, letters, news releases and political maneuvers meant to get Attorney General Roy Cooper to say "yes."

So far, he has said nothing.

Cooper has been the focus of pressure, particularly by conservatives, to have North Carolina join a lawsuit challenging the legality of the new federal health care law. Attorneys general in 13 states, including South Carolina, have filed a suit that claims the law "represents an unprecedented encroachment on the liberty of individuals" and that the federal government does not have the right to force Americans to have health insurance. A 14th state, Virginia, filed its own lawsuit.

Cooper, through letters and a spokeswoman, has said his office is looking into it. Requests for an interview Wednesday failed.

"He is not in the office today," said spokeswoman Noelle Talley, who said she had been unable to reach Cooper on his cell phone.

The pressure on Cooper, a Democrat, comes as Republicans have taken the fight against the health care law from Washington to the states. Republicans also plan to push a bill in the legislature that would exempt North Carolina from provisions of the law. But since the legislature won't convene until May, Republicans are keeping the focus on Cooper, who has avoided talking about the issue.

Cooper wasn't at a meeting Tuesday where two Republicans on the Council of State, a panel of statewide elected officials, tried to push for money to join the suit. Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, sidestepped the maneuver, saying that since Cooper was not there, the officials should not discuss the suit. The N.C. Democratic Party said the Republicans were posturing.

The Republicans' move on Tuesday was no surprise since they announced their plans Monday. Talley said Cooper missed Tuesday's meeting to meet FBI supervisors in Charlotte who had been trying to see him since January.

Talley said the issue of the health care lawsuit is being reviewed by Christopher Browning, the state's solicitor general, a job Cooper created in 2004 to handle complex cases before the state and federal appellate courts. Browning is reviewing case law as well as material provided by the Florida Attorney General's Office, which led the 13-state lawsuit. Cooper's office generally reviews requests by elected officials to join a lawsuit or handle a case, Talley said.

Cooper's official posture, that he is reviewing the case, is meeting with skepticism by conservatives.

"I would say that it appears to me that the failure, his failure or refusal to respond on the merits has what appears to me more to do with his political affiliation than whether or not the suit has merits," Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger said. "This is not an issue that just got dumped on his desk today where he's being asked, 'Decide right now.' "

Berger said that if Cooper announced that he thought the case had no merit, he would respect the decision.

"I would disagree with his conclusion, but I would say he, as the attorney general, is the one that has the authority to make that call," Berger said.

Adam Searing, director of the liberal-leaning N.C. Health Access Coalition, said Republicans are using the lawsuit to score political points.

"I don't blame Roy Cooper at all for refusing to be baited into nonsensical legal rulings," Searing said. "He shouldn't even have to answer the question. It's a stupid question in the first place."

Cooper could end the political games, Searing said, by just announcing a decision.

"I do wish he would just say, 'This is a silly lawsuit,' " he said. "He's making a political decision. Both sides are figuring out what the politics are."

ben.niolet@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4521

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