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Rebuked Twice by Supreme Court, North Carolina Republicans Are Unabashed


Legislators seek to create state and local courts more aligned to their views — and to pay back Democrats for similar acts when they were in power.
RALEIGH, N. C. — In Washington, efforts by this state’s Republicans to cement their political dominance have taken a drubbing this month. On May 15, the Supreme Court struck down a North Carolina elections law that a federal appeals court said had been designed “with almost surgical precision” to depress black voter turnout. A week later, the court threw out maps of two congressional districts that it said sought to limit black voters’ clout.
And it could get worse: Gerrymandering challenges to other congressional and state legislative districts also are headed for the justices.
But if North Carolina Republicans have been chastened in Washington, there is scant evidence of it here in the state capital. Quite the opposite: Hours after the court nullified the elections law, for example, party officials said they would simply write another.
Republicans have largely dominated state offices since 2010, when a conservative wave helped them wrest control from Democrats, who had regarded incumbency as a birthright for a century. But since November, when Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, reclaimed the governor’s office from the incumbent Republican, Pat McCrory, Republicans have redoubled their efforts to keep the levers of state government and state courts in their control.
Politics in North Carolina have long been barbed, and Republicans say Democrats regularly twisted the rules when they were in power.
“We have an enormously powerful legislature, and this state has a long history of suspicion of executive power, ” said Dallas Woodhouse, the state Republican Party ’s executive director. “It’s often that we have reined in appointments when one side controls the legislature and the other doesn’ t.”
The party chairman, Robin Hayes, was more succinct. “The one with the most votes wins, ” he said, “and if you believe in what you’ re doing, then you consolidate your available resources.”
Democrats and some government watchdogs say the Republicans have not just tweaked the rules of fair play, but tossed out the rule book altogether.
“What we’ re seeing in North Carolina is an effort at political entrenchment that is unparalleled, ” said Allison Riggs, a senior staff lawyer at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a Durham advocacy group that sued Republican leaders over the election law. “It requires a complete disregard for the will of the voters and political participation, and a disregard for the independence of the judiciary.”
After a toxic election campaign, the veto-proof Republican majorities in the State House and State Senate moved to defang Mr. Cooper even before he took office. A special session in December stripped the governor of most power to appoint state employees and university trustees, choose a cabinet without legislative approval and install majorities on state and local election boards. The latter move was stayed, pending a trial.
Now the legislators are taking aim at the state judicial system. In December, after voters elected a Democratic majority to the nominally nonpartisan State Supreme Court, the legislature expanded the jurisdiction of the Republican-led Court of Appeals and made the legal path toward other Supreme Court hearings more tortuous. Last month, Republicans voted to shrink the Court of Appeals by barring replacement of the next three retiring judges, denying Mr. Cooper a chance to nominate successors.
In March, a state commission charged with improving the state’s courts urged the legislature to scrap the requirement that judges win election to the bench, saying it forced candidates to seek contributions from people who appeared before them.
Eight days later, the legislature voted to change lower-court elections from nonpartisan to partisan affairs, requiring nearly 400 judges to run under party labels in a bid to put more Republican loyalists on the bench. (The legislators had earlier made appeals and Supreme Court elections partisan.) Two Republican legislators filed a bill to split Charlotte’s Democratic-leaning Mecklenburg County judicial district into three new ones that would give Republicans a better shot at victory.
“It’s straight-up political, ” one of the sponsors, Senator Jeff Tarte of suburban Charlotte, told The News & Observer of Raleigh.
Other Republican-sponsored bills would rescind Mr. Cooper’s authority to fill most judicial vacancies, give political parties a role in filling others and change the composition of special three-judge panels, established to hear challenges to laws, that frequently have ruled against the legislature.
“What is the future for an independent judiciary in the state of North Carolina should all these bills become law?” asked State Representative Joe John, a Democrat who sat on the Court of Appeals from 1993 to 2001. “It sure doesn’ t look very good.”
Mr. Woodhouse said that Democrats had changed the appeals court’s size before and that voters were not demanding to surrender their right to choose judges. When Democratic legislators first removed party labels from judicial races around the turn of this century, he added, voter participation plummeted 30 percent.
Still, at least one Republican has protested personally against the judicial overhaul. As the legislature voted last month to pare the Court of Appeals, one of the court’s Republican judges, Douglas McCullough, chose to retire several weeks early — before the measure became law — so that Mr. Cooper could name his replacement. (Mr. Cooper did, naming a Democrat.)
Mr. McCullough said in an interview that he had quit to keep the court at full strength so that it could manage its heavy workload. He estimated that judges would have heard as many as 200 fewer cases a year had his spot on the bench not been filled.
“I didn’ t want my legacy to be the elimination of my seat and the impairment of the court to do its job, ” he said. “It’s bad legislation.”
Some political experts see the Republican efforts as full-bore payback for Democratic abuses in the past. Since 1877, only four Republican governors have held office, and Democrats have been known to execute power plays against them.
In 1976, the incoming Democratic governor, Jim Hunt, demanded the resignations of 169 political appointees who were holdovers from the previous Republican administration. In 1989, the Democratic-controlled legislature stripped the Republican lieutenant governor of virtually all powers. In 2000,Democrats added three seats to the Court of Appeals, arguing that the court’s caseload justified the expansion, but also setting a precedent that Republicans are now eager to reverse.

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