State Politics

Court rulings mean NC is without an elections board and ethics commission, Berger says

Berger reacts to 3 judge panel ruling on elections board and ethics commission earlier this year

Video: Senate Bill 68 combines the current State Ethics Commission and State Board of Elections into a single board. It is headed to the desk of Gov. Roy Cooper, who has said he would veto it.
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Video: Senate Bill 68 combines the current State Ethics Commission and State Board of Elections into a single board. It is headed to the desk of Gov. Roy Cooper, who has said he would veto it.

A N.C. Court of Appeals order means that the state doesn’t have a board that oversees elections and ethics laws, Senate leader Phil Berger said Thursday afternoon.

Berger made a rare visit to the room in the Legislative Building reserved for reporters to announce the latest news in an ongoing lawsuit over a December law combining the ethics and elections boards into a new State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

“You still have all of the laws that folks are required to comply with, but we don’t have an Ethics Commission and we don’t have a Board of Elections based on this order,” Berger said.

Asked how any elections or ethics matter would be decided now, Berger responded “those are questions that will need to be answered. There could be some questions as to the legal effect of any decisions they make during that period of time that they are nonexistent.”

The order from the Court of Appeals, dated Tuesday, is difficult to understand without a law degree. Gov. Roy Cooper’s attorneys have a different interpretation than Berger.

“The three-judge panel, the Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court have all made clear their desire for the status quo to be maintained until this case is decided,” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said in an email. “We don’t believe the Court of Appeals had any intention of eliminating either the Board of Elections or Ethics Commission as that would not make sense.”

N.C. Board of Elections spokesman Patrick Gannon said Thursday afternoon that “this agency’s attorneys were just made aware of the order from the Court of Appeals, and they are working to determine exactly what it means ... I can tell you that State Board of Elections employees in Raleigh are working hard today, as usual.”

The next court hearing in the case from a three-judge panel of Superior Court judges is set for Tuesday.

Under a law passed during a December special session of the legislature, the current State Board of Elections, which has a majority of members from the governor’s political party, was to be merged with the ethics board.

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.

The Democratic governor sued, arguing that the change was unconstitutional, and the law was put on hold shortly before it was to take effect on Jan. 1. The Court of Appeals ruled in early February that the law could take effect while the case is pending – a victory for Republican legislative leaders. That order was then overturned by the N.C. Supreme Court a few days later, temporarily restoring the old system.

The N.C. Democratic Party issued a news release blaming legislative Republicans for this week’s confusion. “This is exactly why legislative Republicans need to stop their partisan power grabs and focus on issues that matter,” spokesman Mike Gwin said.

The questions about whether the state has an elections board come at a time when North Carolina’s voter ID case is parked at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The elections board, its members and executive director are the only parties remaining in the lawsuit over the state’s voter ID requirement and other election procedures, after the governor and state attorney general put forward plans to withdraw a request for a high court review.

Private attorneys who have represented the Republican leadership in the legislature filed a request seeking to intervene in the case but that has not been ruled on yet.

If the courts agreed with Berger’s interpretation that the state has no elections board, the lawmakers might have a stronger case to have the General Assembly added to the case so far along in the legal process.

Staff writer Anne Blythe contributed to this report

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter