New NC laws may face challenges

July 27, 2013 

The General Assembly session that ended last week saw Republicans trample the Constitution and federal regulations like, well, a herd of elephants.

Now that they’re gone, bring on the lawyers.

Republican lawmakers, with supermajorities in the state House and Senate and a rubber-stamp GOP governor, passed laws despite strong public objections and a few thousand protesters showing up for 12 Moral Monday demonstrations. But those who are upset with some of what passed in this historic session may yet get support from the courts.

An appeal to the state Supreme Court challenging the Republican-drawn 2011 redistricting maps may soon be joined in the courts by complaints about legislation produced during the 2013 session.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find any session of the North Carolina legislature that had produced more potentially unconstitutional legislation,” said Chris Brook, legal director of the North Carolina ACLU. “In fact, you’d be hard- pressed to find more unconstitutional legislation passed in any state legislative session.”

Brook joked that Republicans’ indifference to the law did at least fulfill one of their pledges – job creation, albeit mostly for lawyers.

Among the list of actions that could face challenges:

A budget provision providing taxpayer money for low-income children to attend private schools may be in violation of church-state separation laws.

A law limiting access to abortion services may unconstitutionally restrict a woman’s right to end a pregnancy. Similar laws in other states are being challenged in the courts.

Broad reductions in early voting and voter registration programs along with tightly restricted voter ID requirements may be challenged under the Voting Rights Act. The U.S. Supreme Court gutted part of the law in June, but Attorney General Eric Holder said last week that his department intends to take action against states that pass voting laws that disproportionately limit voting by minority groups.

The repeal of the Racial Justice Act will not end efforts by death row inmates to have their sentences changed to life in prison without parole if their sentence was tinged by racial bias. Virtually all of the state’s 153 death row inmates filed to have their sentences reconsidered under the RJA before Gov. Pat McCrory signed its repeal in June. Now all who have made a claim will have to litigate over whether their cases should proceed. The first four claims under the act resulted in death sentences being changed to life without parole.

The N.C. Association of Educators is threatening to sue over a state budget provision that ends tenure for public school teachers and places teachers on contracts that are renewed based on performance reviews.

Another budget provision that cuts one-third of the Prisoner Legal Services budget may violate a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prisoners are entitled to adequate representation.

The General Assembly’s approval of a three-year delay in implementation of rules aimed at protecting the water quality of Jordan Lake, a Triangle reservoir that provides drinking water for 300,000 people, may face legal challenges as a violation of the federal Clean Water Act. Elsewhere on the environmental front, there may be legal challenges to new regulations easing restrictions on landfills and billboards.

A law allowing drug tests for some welfare applicants may violate constitutional protections against unreasonable searches.

Lawsuits take time and money and often fail. But it’s nonetheless encouraging that many groups who felt themselves or their state abused by the GOP’s aggressive “legislating” don’t intend to let the fight end with the banging of the gavel.

That may be the one great positive to emerge from the session. It spurred North Carolinians to think about what their state should stand for and what actions require standing up to.

While appeals to the morality of the lawmakers failed, perhaps appeals on the legality of their dictates will succeed. Citizens and advocacy groups should aggressively go to court until that still distant November of 2014 when the public will deliver its verdict.

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