Three-Judge Panel Convened in Case Regarding Proposed Constitutional Amendments

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PC: Karen Neoh

Hannah Astin
Staff Writer

A Wake County Superior Court judge has called for the appointment of a three-judge panel to hear arguments concerning the ballot language for four proposed constitutional amendments.

These amendments, spearheaded by the GOP majority in the North Carolina General Assembly, have faced challenges from Democrats since their proposal in July.

Attorneys for Governor Roy Cooper, Clean Air Carolina and the North Carolina National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) challenged the ballot language for the four amendments in two separate lawsuits filed on Aug. 6.

One lawsuit was filed by Clean Air Carolina and the North Carolina NAACP, while the other was filed by Cooper. The lawsuits challenged amendments regarding boards and commissions appointments, voter identification laws, tax caps and judicial vacancy appointments.

All plaintiffs hope to stop the proposals from appearing on ballots, which are set to be finalized Aug. 8. They are seeking temporary restraining orders on the amendments.

The lawsuit by Clean Air Carolina and the North Carolina NAACP claims that the legislature was illegally racially gerrymandered and is therefore illegitimate.

“For four out of the six proposed constitutional amendments, the vote count barely met the required supermajority threshold, clearing that hurdle by just one or two votes,” the lawsuit states, as quoted in N.C. Policy Watch. “Thus, these four proposed amendments are the direct result of the illegally engineered maps that targeted black voters and packed them into racially segregated districts. This court cannot allow this unconstitutionally-constituted body to use its misappropriated power to enact proposals that amend our Constitution in ways designed to suppress African-American voters and to further entrench the usurpers’ political power at the expense of popular sovereignty.”

Cooper’s lawsuit argues that their contentions with the amendments were “as applied” and not “facial,” meaning that the ballot language of these specific amendments is unconstitutional because it misleads voters.

“Rather than allow the voters to make an intelligent decision whether to restructure their own state government, the General Assembly has adopted false and misleading ballot language that conceals the true — and truly extraordinary — nature of these proposed amendments,” says the lawsuit.

Judge Paul Ridgeway did not agree with either of the arguments and said that he would consult with state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin to convene a three-judge panel to hear the case. This is a requirement for facial constitutional challenges. Martin is in charge of appointing three-judge panels, but the process is unknown.

Cooper’s lawsuit also specifically calls out two amendments regarding appointments that would “take a wrecking ball to the separations of powers clause.” These amendments give Cooper’s appointment powers over the state boards and commissions and judicial vacancies to the Generally Assembly.

Cooper’s attorney Buddy Wester mentioned that the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement agreed the amendments in contention would rewrite the separation of powers clause and proposed misleading ballot information.

“These ballot questions, your honor, do not fairly describe either of the ballot amendments that they would enact,” said Wester in representation of Cooper. Matt Sawchak, Solicitor General of the state, agreed.

“The question that the Board has to ask itself in this context is are these questions fair in their portrayal of the substance of what would be accomplished in the amendments. And that’s where the Board, with regret I must say, has to express agreement.…It’s a difficult situation that we’re in because we’re caught between two obligations,” said Sawchak.

Sawchak encouraged Ridgeway to act on the constitutional amendments question as soon as possible and before votes were cast, because it is more difficult to act retroactively.

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