NC attorney general questions McCrory on voting lawsuit; governor's office fires back

jfrank@newsobserver.com rchristensen@newsobserver.comOctober 1, 2013 

MCCRORY01-NE-090413-CCS

Gov. Pat McCrory speaks at the State Board of Education meeting in Raleigh, NC on Sept. 4, 2013.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— Attorney General Roy Cooper said Tuesday that it is an “unnecessary expense” for Gov. Pat McCrory to hire an outside attorney to represent North Carolina against the Obama administration’s lawsuit challenging the state’s new voting law.

“Our office continues to have the primary responsibility to defend the state,” Cooper told reporters. “Our staff will continue to do that.”

The Democrat’s remarks sparked a political blame game about how the state is defending the lawsuit – one with implications for 2016, when Cooper is considering challenging the Republican governor.

Responding to Cooper’s remarks, Bob Stephens, McCrory’s chief legal counsel, said the cost “falls squarely at the feet of the attorney general.”

Stephens questioned Cooper’s ability to defend the state and recommended hiring an outside attorney after Cooper made critical comments about the voting bill earlier this year.

“I was concerned then and I’m concerned today that the comments that he has made (against) this legislation has compromised his ability to represent the state of North Carolina,” Stephens told reporters in a hastily scheduled briefing hours after Cooper’s remarks. Stephens compared it to a defendant’s attorney standing on a street corner and announcing “that you were guilty.”

Cooper had asked the governor not to sign the voting bill, calling it “regressive” and saying the new requirement that voters show photo identification at the polls is “unnecessary, expensive and burdensome.” His comments were cited in the U.S. Justice Department’s lawsuit filed Monday.

‘Part of my duties’

Cooper said he has a responsibility to defend his client, regardless of whether he agrees with the law. “There have been a number of laws that I have disagreed with personally that our staff has defended in court successfully,” he said. “I consider it part of my duties as attorney general to weigh in on important public policy issues. But under the law it is our duty to defend the state when it is sued. We will continue to do that.”’

McCrory hired Karl “Butch” Bowers Jr., a South Carolina lawyer with strong GOP ties to defend the state against federal lawsuit, which claims the voting law — including the much-debated voter ID provision — will intentionally discriminate against minorities. It is one of four lawsuits against the law, which McCrory signed in August.

Bowers, who recently left the Womble Carlye law firm in Columbia, S.C., to start his own practice, will make $360 an hour. He is a member of the Republican National Lawyers Association and represented South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on ethics charges. He also served as a special counsel on election law in U.S. Justice Department under President George W. Bush.

Stephens said he is not concerned about Bowers’ partisan record or potential conflicts with his other clients, saying he was vetted before being hired. He also said the state is getting a reduced rate for Bowers’ time.

“These lawsuits are incredibly important to the people of North Carolina,” Stephens said. “We are going to win. I’m confident we are going to win. I don’t want us to risk not winning because we don’t have the right legal team.”

Another outside attorney

Republican legislative leaders also hired their own outside attorney to represent their interests, Tom Farr with Ogletree Deakins in Raleigh. A new state law gives them standing to intervene in lawsuits against the state.

A spokesman for House Speaker Thom Tillis could not immediately provide the terms of Farr’s contract. Farr also is defending the Republican legislature in the redistricting lawsuit.

Stephens declined to discuss the merits of the latest lawsuit, but he said the state would oppose any effort to stay its implementation while the case moves through the courts.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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