NC's GOP leaders spend big on private lawyers

November 19, 2013 

At long last North Carolina’s Republican leaders have a jobs-creation plan that really works. Unfortunately, it applies only to lawyers and apparently only to lawyers who have contributed generously to Republicans or who have Republican friends in high places.

This is the GOP’s Hire Our Own Lawyers Act. It’s not a real law, of course, but it does cost real money. Republican lawmakers are hiring their own counsel to defend legal challenges to their highly contested new laws.

This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be done. The state has lawyers employed by the legislature and nearly 300 lawyers in the attorney general’s office to defend such challenges, but that’s not enough for the Republican leaders. They want their own counsel – at extra cost to the taxpayers.

John Frank reported in Tuesday’s News & Observer that taxpayers paid more than $1.6 million to outside counsel, the Raleigh-based firm of Ogletree Deakins, to join the attorney general in defending the state’s new redistricting maps.

More costs ahead

The meter is still running. An appeal in the case is before the state Supreme Court and may eventually go to the U.S. Supreme Court. That could be a big bill. According to a March 1 letter outlining the state’s contract with Ogletree Deakins, attorneys Tom Farr, Phil Strach and Michael McKnight were paid $260 to $385 an hour with additional charges for travel, court reporters and other legal expenses.

So much for tightfisted Republican lawmakers. They can’t find a nickle extra to boost the pay for all teachers and they’re cutting payments to the unemployed, but when their hold on power is challenged, they’ll pay top dollar for legal advice.

And the legal bills for private counsel in public cases are sprouting elsewhere. Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis has retained Ogletree Deakins to help defend the state against challenges to the new elections law, which has drawn four lawsuits. The firm’s lawyers have donated at least $64,000 to North Carolina campaigns, most of it going to Republicans.

Governor hires lawyer

Not to be outdone in getting lawyered-up, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory has hired a South Carolina lawyer with strong GOP connections to represent his office against challenges to the election law. The lawyer, Butch Bowers, will be paid $360 an hour. Taxpayers should appreciate that Bowers’ rate is a 15 percent discount from his usual $425 an hour charge.

Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat who is likely to run for governor in 2016, thinks the extra legal expenses are unnecessary. He has opposed the election law and others passed by the General Assembly, but he has hundreds of career attorneys on staff who will provide a strong defense of the laws regardless of his views.

“If there are constitutional arguments to be made, it is our duty to do it, and I’m going to make sure our office does its duty,” he said.

The governor and Republican leaders don’t trust Cooper’s assurances. They say he can’t criticize a law while defending its legality. But these are separate issues. If a law is constitutional, it is a matter of law, not politics, and the state’s career attorneys will argue for a law’s validity in light of the law, not politics. That Republicans feel compelled to bring in expensive private attorneys says more about their doubts about the defensibility of their new laws than it does about the attorney general’s fitness to defend them.

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