A three-judge panel Thursday upheld Gov. Roy Cooper’s request to block a revamp of the state elections board while his lawsuit makes its way through the courts. In the first hearing before the panel of judges assigned to the case this week, Greensboro attorney Jim Phillips argued for Cooper that a law adopted by the General Assembly in one of its special sessions last month violates the constitutional separation of powers. It was a similar argument to one made last week by Phillips on the eve of the date the law would have disbanded the five-member state Board of Elections and passed its duties to the state Ethics Commission. The merger was set to happen on Jan. 1, but Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens temporarily blocked the law from taking effect. His restraining order was set to expire Monday. The three-judge panel – assigned to the case because of the constitutional questions the new law raises – heard from the lawyers for nearly three hours before retreating behind closed doors. The panel contacted attorneys in the case several hours later, letting them know that they had granted Cooper’s request. They instructed Phillips to write an order, circulate it among the legislators’ lawyers and return it to them by Friday.
“We are very mindful that time is of the essence,” Gaston County Judge Jesse Caldwell told the attorneys and crowd gathered in the Wake County courtroom on Thursday morning.
At issue is whether the General Assembly overstepped its state constitutional authority when it adopted a law that establishes an eight-member board to oversee elections in this state and consider ethics complaints and issues. The governor would appoint four members and legislative leaders would appoint the other four, with the board split evenly between Democrats and Republicans.
That changes the current setup in which the governor has the power to appoint all five members to the state elections board, three from his party and two from the other major political party based on recommendations from that party.