The General Assembly is returning to Raleigh next week for a special session to help areas of the state suffering from the effects of Hurricane Matthew and the wildfires in western North Carolina.
There’s nothing surprising or controversial about that. Communities across the state ravaged by the storms and the fires need the help.
But Gov. Pat McCrory’s recent email to the Council of State also said the session would address “any other matters the General Assembly elects to consider. “
And those possible “other matters” have Raleigh in an uproar and for good reason. Reportedly legislative leaders are contemplating several power grabbing moves in response to the election of Democrat Roy Cooper as governor and Superior Court Judge Mike Morgan to the N.C. Supreme Court—which gives Democrats a 4-3 majority.
The most common rumor is that the House and Senate will vote approve legislation during the special session to add two justices to the court who would then be appointed by Governor McCrory before he leaves office, maintaining the court’s Republican majority.
No one in the legislative leadership has admitted publicly that they are considering the court packing move but key lawmakers have repeatedly refused to rule it out and there are reports that House leaders are pressuring members to support such a plan with the Senate already on board.
The prospects of a last minute underhanded attempt by Republicans to keep control of the court have prompted outrage around the country and opposition inside North Carolina from Democrats and Republicans alike.
This week former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, a Republican, weighed in against the court packing, as did a commission appointed by current Chief Justice Mark Martin, also a member of the Republican Party.
There are also reports that legislative leaders are considering reducing the number of positions in state government that serve at the pleasure of the governor. After McCrory took office in 2013, lawmakers increased the number of political jobs from 500 to 1,500. WRAL-TV reported this week that McCrory ended up filling roughly 1,300 of those positions.
Now there’s talk that House and Senate leaders want to reduce that number, maybe back to 500, making it difficult for Cooper to replace McCrory’s political appointees with people committed to his own agenda for the state.
And that’s not all. Currently county boards of elections are controlled by the political party of the governor and that means that Democrats would control the boards for the next four years thanks to Cooper’s election, just as Republicans have controlled them since McCrory took office.
Republican lawmakers are also reportedly considering using the special session to change how the local boards are appointed so they won’t lose control when Cooper takes over.
No doubt there are other power grabbing plots being contemplated too. Cooper is clearly worried about it, moving up his swearing-in to January 1, the first day he’s eligible to take over and almost a full week before his ceremonial inauguration day.
Taking the oath early allows him to be in office sooner if the courts step in to delay any questionable legislation rammed through the special session to take his power away.
Some legislative observers continue to dismiss all the rumors about the special session and insist that lawmakers will only address disaster relief when they come to town, believing that Republican legislative leaders wouldn’t stoop to such brazen anti-democratic power-grabbing right after an election.
But this is the basically the same General Assembly that added abortion restrictions to a motorcycle safety bill and the same folks that rushed HB2 through a one-day session with little notice or debate. It’s hard to put anything past them, even insulting victims of the recent natural disasters by using a special session called to help them for crass partisan political gain.
Senator Bob Rucho, who did not run for reelection and is leaving office at the end of the year, will no doubt play a large role in whatever lawmakers decide to do next week. This is his swan song in Raleigh.
Rucho recently complained about a recent federal court ruling that ordered lawmakers to redraw some legislative districts and hold a special election next year. Rucho said the ruling would “undo the will of millions of North Carolinians just days after they cast their ballots.”
That’s not true of course. The court had already ruled the districts unconstitutional but allowed the November elections to proceed because there wasn’t time to change them.
But if Rucho and his colleagues really are worried about listening to the will of the people, they’d abandon any plans to pack the court to maintain control or limit Cooper’s power before he takes office.
The voters elected a Democratic governor and chose a Democratic justice for the Supreme Court. Republicans may not like it, but that is the will of the people and if they have any respect for democracy legislative leaders must accept it.
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