Berger downplays talk of expanding NC Supreme Court
State legislators focused on disaster relief funding in the first day of their special session Tuesday – but other unrelated topics could emerge Wednesday when lawmakers return amid protests.
The House unanimously approved Gov. Pat McCrory’s request for about $200 million in disaster relief funds for the victims of Hurricane Matthew flooding and November’s wildfires, and the Senate is scheduled to vote on the bill Wednesday. McCrory called the legislature back into session to approve the recovery financing, but he also left the door open for lawmakers to take up any other issues they deem appropriate.
Senate leader Phil Berger wouldn’t say what other legislation his chamber might consider. “There are a lot of things that are being talked about,” Berger, an Eden Republican, told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “I don’t think any decisions have been made as of yet as to exactly what would transpire beyond the hurricane and forest fire relief bill.”
House Speaker Tim Moore says there is no plan to add two seats to the N.C. Supreme Court, and he said he’d be opposed to the change. “The only people discussing a Supreme Court bill are the Democrats. That’s not something we’re discussing,” said Moore, a Kings Mountain Republican. “I don’t believe we ought to do it. I’ve made that clear from day one. That’s not something we’re looking at.”
Asked if he agreed with Moore, Berger was noncommittal.
“I agree that that’s what he said,” Berger replied. “The only folks that I’ve heard talking about some of these other things have been the press and the folks up in the gallery. I don’t know that I need to say anything beyond that.”
Berger was referring to roughly 100 protesters affiliated with the NAACP’s “Moral Monday” movement who spent the day at the legislature to lobby against any Supreme Court changes. They briefly disrupted Senate proceedings by chanting “shame” and gathered for speeches and songs in a public area in the Legislative Building.
Ever since the election of Democrat Mike Morgan to the N.C. Supreme Court last month, which will give Democrats a 4-3 advantage, liberal advocacy groups have accused Republicans of planning to tip the balance on the court, expanding it by two justices who could be appointed by the governor before McCrory leaves office. One group, Common Cause, reported spending $200,000 to air a television ad rallying opposition to the idea.
NAACP President William Barber admitted his group hasn’t received confirmation that “court packing” will happen. “We have to take these rumors and our sources very seriously, because this legislature and the governor have had the unmitigated gall at times to even pass things in the middle of the night,” he said.
N.C. Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse chastised the state’s media outlets Tuesday for reporting on speculation that the legislature might expand the court. He called the reports “rumor-filled propaganda.”
The Supreme Court idea was just one of about a dozen rumors circulating on what else the GOP-controlled General Assembly might do this week.
Only one possibility was confirmed by Republican House leaders: A “regulatory reform” proposal that fell short in the final hours of the legislative session this summer.
“Clearly there was some unfinished business last year,” Moore said, pointing to the deregulation bill. “That’s something we’re discussing.”
The deregulation bill would have reduced the number of counties that must conduct vehicle emissions inspections, repealed the ban on discarding televisions and computers in landfills, and allowed a new technology to dispose of waste liquids from landfills without permits. Moore has said the bill’s failure was his biggest disappointment of the session.
Because multiple versions were on the table when the legislature adjourned in the summer and the bill would have to start the legislative process over, it’s unclear what provisions might appear in the special session. One controversial provision that had been considered would prohibit skyscraping wind turbines from going up in military flight paths and would make large swaths of the state off-limits to wind farms.
No House members had filed any deregulation proposals by the chamber’s bill filing deadline Tuesday, although provisions could be added to another bill Wednesday.
Before Tuesday’s session, Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue of Raleigh and Sen. Ben Clark of Raeford held a news conference to complain that Republican leaders have kept them in the dark about what is in store this week.
They singled out “court-packing” as something the General Assembly should avoid. Blue said legislation expanding the court in this session would be “unethical, immoral and uses people who need immediate assistance as political pawns.” They warned the GOP to limit the session to disaster relief.
But in the House, Democratic Leader Larry Hall of Durham filed two bills unrelated to disaster funding. One addresses early voting, while the other would establish a nonpartisan redistricting commission. Neither is likely to get a hearing.
Both chambers adopted rules that are meant to speed up the bill-approval process in order to keep the session short. An adjournment resolution doesn’t specify when the session will end, but House leaders said it will go two or three days.
“We’ll be out before Christmas,” Moore joked as Tuesday’s session wrapped up.
Berger didn’t set a timeline for the session. “The time we spend here will depend on the number of things we take up,” he said.