It was a game of runs in state and federal courts here in 2014 as state lawmakers pulled out all stops and spent millions in taxpayer’s dollars to stave off challenges to their conservative agenda.
Legislative leaders even took on the state Attorney General when he refused to do their bidding, and the governor took on legislative leaders when they stepped on his toes.
Everybody landed in court, with high price lawyers traveling up and down the legal system in an effort to settle the state of the law in North Carolina.
But by year-end, very little had been resolved.
Below, in no particular order, are a few highlights from the year in courts and law.
Voting became harder
Thanks to the “monster voting law” passed in the summer of 2013, state residents had fewer days to vote, no same-day registration, and no opportunity to cast a vote by provisional ballot if registered but in the wrong precinct.
Layer that on top of contorted voting districts drawn in 2012, which left many unsure of where to vote and tilted the outcome in favor of the minority of registered voters, and you had an electorate that left the polls in November feeling fleeced.
Plenty happened in the federal cases challenging those voting changes.
After four days of hearings in July on whether portions of the new law should be blocked for the November elections, U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder issued a late-Friday-in-August ruling denying that relief. In a 125-page decision, Schroeder dissected each of the challengers’ arguments and held that they had little likelihood to succeed on the merits.
But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals then took the case on an expedited basis and heard argument in September — during which U.S. Circuit Judge James Wynn wondered aloud why the state of North Carolina wanted to keep people from voting.
A reversal of Schroeder’s ruling quickly followed, but the case barely returned to the district court before the state asked the U.S. Supreme Court to jump in and stay the appeals court ruling.
The nation’s highest court did just that on Oct. 8, sending North Carolina voters to the polls in November in a much more restricted environment.
The federal challenges aren’t over though. The parties are back in district court preparing for an August 2015 trial on whether the law – or portions of it – should be overturned. Before then, lawmakers will be producing emails and other communications with outsiders that may say plenty about what they hoped to accomplish with the new voting restrictions.
Meanwhile, groups challenging the state’s 2012 redistricting plan argued their case before the state Supreme Court in January.
And then nothing happened.
Nearly a year has gone by since that argument – during which the composition of the court changed as former Chief Justice Sarah Parker retired – and still no decision has come from the state’s highest court.
Voters took the hit in the interim.
Redistricting clearly tilted the numbers in favor of conservatives, as Duke mathematicians pointed out in a new study.
Despite there being more votes for Democrats statewide, Republicans won nine out of 13 congressional districts in 2012, and 10 out of 13 in 2014.
And as a result of new voting restrictions, at least 50,000 voters were denied access to the polls, according to an analysis by Democracy NC.
Same-sex marriage stormed the country
The dominoes tumbled at breakneck speed once the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act in the summer of 2013, and by February of this year, seven federal district court judges had overturned state same-sex marriage bans.
In North Carolina, parties challenging the state ban – along with ministers who joined their cause in a separate case – asked federal judges here to do the same. But before the judges could even rule in those cases, the Fourth Circuit overturned a similar Virginia ban as unconstitutional, setting the law down here and freeing couples to wed.
That didn’t happen without a fight, though.
The district courts here quickly followed the Fourth Circuit edict and overturned the state ban. Attorney General Roy Cooper then declined to defend the state ban any further, riling legislative leaders Sen. Phil Berger and Speaker Thom Tillis. Both accused Cooper of failing to do his job and stepped in to appeal lower court rulings here, and have since indicated that they plan to go straight to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the meantime, some magistrates across the state refused to marry gay couples, citing religious concerns — prompting the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts to issue a memo reminding them of their obligations to do so.
Decisions from several states had already made it to the nation’s highest court for a final review by the fall, but in October the justices refused to take any of them. Although they gave no explanation, many legal experts attributed the court’s inaction to the lack of a conflict in the cases (all had sided in favor of marriage equality).
A conflict in the circuits now exists though, as federal courts in the Sixth Circuit have upheld state marriage bans and five cases are now pending for review at the nation’s highest court.
With a growing chorus asking the court for closure on the issue, it’s likely that the justices will take at least one of those cases for review in the coming year.
As things stand right now, same sex marriage is legal in 35 states, and an additional 10 have federal court rulings overturning bans that are awaiting appellate review.
Attempts to gut the Affordable Care Act continued
The U.S. Supreme Court may have upheld it as the law of the land, and congressional Republicans may have failed in their more than 50 attempts to repeal it, but the Affordable Care Act continued to be a political football.
In 2014, the ACA landed back in the courts, attacked this time for wording that its challengers say prohibits subsidies for people who purchase health insurance on the federal exchange.
Two lawsuits filed by the anti-Obamacare folks pushed the issue to the fore – one in Washington, D.C. and another in Virginia – and in the course of just a few hours on one day in July, federal appeals courts issued conflicting rulings.
A ruling from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals came first, holding that that tax credits under the Act were only be available to people who enrolled in new exchanges set up in states — not those who enrolled in the default federal program.
But the Fourth Circuit quickly followed with a ruling reaching the opposite result – all but insuring Supreme Court review, which the justices agreed to do in November.
More than 350,000 people in North Carolina purchased health insurance on the federal exchange during the first year, most with the help of subsidies.
The Republican agenda went to court
Republicans took control of the statehouse and then the governor’s mansion these past few years and quickly set out to turn a conservative agenda into law.
And just as fast, those laws landed in state or federal courts, subject to an array of challenges – constitutional and otherwise.
The list is long (and exhausting but not exhaustive): redistricting, voter suppression; same-sex marriage; abortion ultrasound law; Choose Life license plates; school vouchers; school funding; teacher contracts; coal ash; Bonner Bridge; repeal of the Racial Justice Act; and attempted state takeovers of the Charlotte-Douglas Airport and the Asheville Water System.
Things got so out-of-hand that even the governor got into the act, suing legislative leaders Berger and Tillis for allegedly usurping his power to create commissions.
And state leaders playing defense resorted to a number of new tactics – including hiring their own counsel at taxpayer expense, replacing the Attorney General and creating new three-judge panels to review challenges to their laws.
Public money flowed to private schools
Lawmakers wasted little time after enacting the “Opportunity Scholarship Program” getting private school vouchers off the ground.
The vouchers, worth $4,200 per student annually, funnel taxpayer funds to largely unaccountable private schools –70 percent of which are affiliated with religious institutions.
In February, Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood temporarily blocked implementation of the program, saying that it likely violated provisions of the state constitution.
Tillis and Berger then pressured Attorney General Roy Cooper to appeal that ruling, but Cooper refused.
But parents who intervened in the case, represented by the Koch Brothers-backed law firm Institute for Justice, did move forward with an appeal and in May, the state Supreme Court sent the case back to Hobgood and allowed the voucher program to move forward in the interim.
In a repeat performance, Hobgood heard argument again and ruled in late August that the program violated the state constitution and should be permanently blocked.
Once again, the case went up on appeal, and in September the Court of Appeals relented and allowed the state to disburse funds for voucher applicants to use during the 2014-15 school year.
In October the state Supreme Court took the case from the Court of Appeals and will decide the voucher issue directly, with argument now scheduled for Feb. 17, 2015.
Duke Energy became the face of coal ash
Fracking, coastal erosion, climate change, wind power and solar energy all made headlines, but it was Duke Energy’s dumping of 80,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in February that predominated the environmental conversation in 2014.
The dangers posed by unlined coal ash pits located close to rivers and lakes across the state was not a new issue. Environmental groups had already been challenging regulators and Duke Energy in court to move the ash and clean up the pits.
But with the Dan River spill, state residents saw the problem with their own eyes and learned soon after about the cozy relationship that had developed between regulators and Duke Energy—evidenced by a sweetheart deal, negotiated pre-spill, that would have let Duke off the hook for contamination at other plants for a fine of less than $100,000.
The U.S. attorney’s office soon stepped in, issuing subpoenas and empaneling a grand jury to examine oversight by regulators and their relationship with Duke. The results of that investigation have yet to be disclosed.
In the meantime, a state court judge ordered Duke to immediately clean up the source of contamination at affected sites, an order which Duke says is contrary to regulatory requirements.
Review of that order was pending in the Court of Appeals when the state Supreme Court in October ordered the case sent directly up for its review – just as it did with the school vouchers case.
The state Supreme Court elections became the costliest ever
Judicial elections lived up to predictions of runaway dollars in 2014, with the four-seat state Supreme Court races running up a $5 million tab – much of that spent by outside interests during the May primary to take down sitting Justice Robin Hudson.
The Washington, D.C.-based Republican State Leadership Committee filtered nearly a million dollars through Justice for All NC to run an attack ad accusing Hudson of siding with child predators in a 2010 dissenting opinion she penned.
The ad backfired, disgusting voters and judges alike, and gave Hudson an early opportunity to show who she really was.
Hudson won in November and returns to the Court for another eight years, this time accompanied by two Democratic justices – newcomer and Court of Appeals Judge Sam Ervin IV and incumbent Justice Cheri Beasley, who survived a close race and recount.
North Carolina apologizes
It was long overdue and not nearly enough, but the state finally got around to compensating some of the victims of its eugenics program, through which some 7,600 people were forcibly sterilized from 1929 to 1974.
In October, the Office of Justice for Sterilization Victims said it had received 786 claims for a share of the $10 million fund set up for compensation, but only 213 of those qualified for payment.
That’s because at least some of the rejected claimants — particularly families of deceased victims — could not come up with the paperwork needed to establish that they were entitled to an award. (They do have a right to appeal that initial determination, though.)
And others were disqualified because their family victims died before the state established the compensation program in June 2013. Their claims have been cut-off.
In the same spirit of recompense, the state also apologized to three men who’d spent more than 30 years each behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit.
Henry McCollum, Leon Brown, and Willie Womble were each exonerated this year after DNA testing in the McCollum and Brown cases, and a witness confession in Womble’s, established their innocence.
A fourth man may soon join them in freedom. Just this month, the state’s Innocence Inquiry Commission found that Joseph Sledge – in prison since 1978 for the murders of a mother and daughter in Bladen County – had produced sufficient evidence of actual innocence to warrant further court review.