The Moral Monday trial that opened Wednesday asks Wake County jurors to weigh whether protesters crowding into a small legislative office, chanting and singing, represented an essential part of democracy or an unlawful nuisance that obstructed government work.
Carol Anderson and Dale Herman, part of a group that rallied against House Bill 2 in 2016, are appealing their 2017 conviction on trespassing charges — arrests that stemmed from their unsuccessful attempt to deliver a petition to Republican House Speaker Tim Moore.
HB2, which has since been partially repealed, required people to use restrooms in government buildings based on the gender listed on their birth certificates.
In his opening statement, their attorney Scott Holmes described the door to Moore’s office getting slammed in their faces, and their hope that they could get it delivered by going to the next open door, where General Assembly police instructed them to leave.
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Holmes spoke of their right through Article 1 of the state Constitution “to instruct their representatives,” and their belief that they were acting in the tradition of the sit-in movement.
“From their point of view,” Holmes said, “they did not unlawfully or willfully break a law. From their point of view, they were vindicating the law.”
But Assistant District Attorney Nishma Patel reminded jurors that the case is not a debate or a referendum on HB2, but rather a simple question of law.
“The singing and chanting was so loud the principal clerk was unable to do her job,” she said.
For her first witness, Patel called retired House Principal Clerk Denise Weeks, who testified about 20 people came into her “very small office” at about 5 p.m., Anderson and Herman among them. She asked if she could help, she said, told them where to find the office they were seeking and “they just said they would wait.”
“They started singing and chanting,” she said. “I informed them I didn’t have a vote. I didn’t have anything to do with the legislation they were protesting. ... It was very disruptive.”
On cross-examination, Holmes asked if it were possible that 11 people came to her office — the number arrested that day. Weeks said she believes there were more but some chose not to get arrested.
In 2017, a District Court judge found Anderson and Herman guilty of trespass charges but dismissed allegations they violated Legislative Building rules after finding those rules unconstitutional on several fronts.
Further wrangling has ensued over the legality of those rules and the police who enforce them, and in 2018, a Superior Court judge rejected arguments that regulating protest activity inside the Legislative Building was illegal.
Testimony continues Thursday.