RALEIGH — Concerns over a far-reaching bill allowing Republicans to clear the decks of mostly Democratic appointments to key boards and commissions delayed the Senate’s approval on Wednesday, but only for a day. The Senate is expected to repeat its 33-16 vote along party lines Thursday, and then it will go to the House.
Republicans brushed aside warnings that a provision in the bill to eliminate 12 special superior court judgeships might be unconstitutional, since the General Assembly is not allowed to remove a judge except by impeachment. GOP lawmakers said this is different because it is eliminating 12 positions, not targeting a specific judge.
Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, tried to remove that provision from the bill through an amendment that failed. Several lawyers in the Senate conferred with staff attorneys but couldn’t agree on whether it would be legal.
“Defeat the amendment and let the courts decide,” said Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Republican from Hendersonville who is a co-sponsor of the bill, along with Sen. Bill Rabon, a Southport Republican, and Sen. Neal Hunt, a Raleigh Republican.
The judge issue was an unexpected diversion in a bill that is primarily aimed at sweeping out the current members of such significant entities as the state Utilities Commission, the Industrial Commission and the Coastal Resources Commission – in all, more than 100 appointees would be fired from their jobs at an annual savings of $2 million.
Feedback after a Senate committee approved the bill Tuesday led to some changes in the version tentatively approved Wednesday, including reducing the Utilities Commission from seven to five members, saving the Dietetics/Nutrition Board, and tweaking some of the term lengths and who makes the appointments. Apodaca said after the session that he consented to Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt’s request to let the bill simmer for one more day.
Republican senators fired back at Democrats who accused them of making a political power grab, saying previous legislatures had done the same. Six-term Republican Sen. Jerry Tillman of Archdale said, “Memories often fade.”
“There’s a new management team in town, voted on by the people, and they deserve to put their people in,” Tillman said on the floor. “You don’t want rulemaking that may be at cross-purposes with the management team.”
That brought a retort from Democratic Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh, who brought the judges issue back into the debate by noting there is supposed to be a separation of powers.
“I would argue they are the last people that ought to be a part of anybody’s team, unless they’re teaming up with justice and fairness,” Blue said.
Republicans also countered the Democrats’ argument that losing a dozen judges would hobble the state courts’ workload. GOP lawmakers said they’ve been told the special judges average fewer than 10 hours a week on the bench.
Also, Republicans said they want to have the judges elected in local districts rather than appointed by governors statewide.
The special judges can be assigned to any superior court in the state. They are paid $125,875 a year with another $62,372 in benefits and travel allowance.
All of them were appointed by past governors – four of the 12 were made judges in the final hours of the terms of former Democratic governors Mike Easley and Bev Perdue.
Easley appointed Shannon Joseph, who is the daughter-in-law of former Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand and was an administrative law judge, and Bill Pittman, who was in private practice, on his last day in office. They were sworn in at 11 p.m. by a judge who was on his way to Perdue’s inaugural ball in 2009.
Perdue left office on Jan. 5 but did not take substantial action after Dec. 31.
That was the day that Perdue appointed as special judges both her secretary of the Department of Public Safety, Reuben Young, and Kendra Hill, who was her chief ethics officer and deputy counsel. Young had previously been a close adviser to Easley. Neither had judicial experience.
Of the other eight, one is overseeing a case now involving Republican Sen. Fletcher Hartsell Jr. It was Hartsell who rose on the Senate floor to raise the concern about whether it was unconstitutional to eliminate the judgeships.
Staff writer J. Andrew Curliss contributed.