The N.C. Court of Appeals has lifted a lower court’s block on state lawmakers’ overhaul of election oversight, allowing the changes to take effect until there’s further action in Gov. Roy Cooper’s lawsuit challenging the changes.
The decision is a win for Republicans after several high-profile losses in court, most recently a three-judge panel’s decision this week that temporarily blocked the state Senate’s planned review of Cooper’s Cabinet appointments and drew a rebuke from legislative leaders that the judges were improperly trying to limit what matters the legislature could consider. One of the judges denied Friday imposing such limits.
The legislature put both the elections and Cabinet changes in place in December during a special session after the election of the new Democratic governor. Cooper sued to block both.
The elections law would replace the current State Board of Elections, which has a majority of members from the governor’s political party, with a new State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, combining the elections and ethics boards.
The current Ethics Commission members would serve as the new board until July 1, when new members appointed by the governor and legislative leaders would take office. The new board would have four Republicans and four Democrats, and six votes would be needed to take any action.
That would reduce the governor’s power over election decisions, such as schedules for early voting and election-related complaints. Supporters of the change say it will lead to bipartisan compromise in election decisions.
Cooper argues that the change is unconstitutional, and a Wake County Superior Court judge put the law on hold shortly before it was set to take effect on Jan. 1.
Republican legislative leaders appealed that decision, and a three-judge panel from the N.C. Court of Appeals issued an order Thursday that puts the law into effect pending further Court of Appeals action on the lawsuit.
Senate leader Phil Berger praised the court’s decision. “We appreciate the Court of Appeals staying the lower court’s preliminary injunction while it considers the important issues raised in our recent appeal, and we hope the Supreme Court will arrive at the same conclusion,” he said in a written statement Friday afternoon.
Cooper’s attorneys have appealed the Court of Appeals order to the N.C. Supreme Court. Their petition argues that the Court of Appeals action “irretrievably upset the status quo and inflicts the very constitutional injury the governor sought to prevent.” It says the block on the law should remain at least until a scheduled March 7 court hearing.
As of 5 p.m. Friday, the Supreme Court hadn’t taken action on Cooper’s petition.
That created confusion for the Ethics Commission, which held its regularly scheduled meeting Friday morning. The members met as the Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, according to a news release issued Friday afternoon.
“We remain committed to the ongoing work of elections administration and ethics enforcement as the case moves through the courts,” Kim Westbrook Strach, acting executive director of the agency, said in the news release.