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North Carolina judges back governor over election changes

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina judges on Friday put a temporary brake on renewed efforts by Republican state lawmakers to curtail the new Democratic governor’s control over state and local elections.

A panel of state trial court judges voted 2-1 to stop a new law from taking effect Monday until a more extensive hearing on May 10. The panel’s majority said Gov. Roy Cooper was likely to succeed in challenging a law GOP legislators passed this week diluting the ability governors have had for more than a century to pick election board majorities.

State Senate leader Phil Berger blasted the temporary restraining order, saying legislators had responded to the panel’s rejection of an earlier version by tailoring the revamped effort “exactly as they required.”

The temporary freeze “is little different than the legislating from the bench they specifically promised they would not do,” Berger said in a prepared statement. “They have taken the first, disturbing step toward giving Roy Cooper total control of the board responsible for regulating his own ethics and campaign finance conduct, and we will continue to defend the law evenly dividing elections and ethics enforcement between both political parties.”

A Cooper spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on Friday’s ruling.

It’s the latest battle over the GOP-dominated General Assembly’s efforts to reduce or check Cooper’s powers. The fight began in December when lawmakers passed a law limiting the governor’s election powers within days after Republican Gov. Pat McCrory conceded a narrow loss to Cooper.

The panel of judges decided that the December law violated the state constitution’s separation of powers. So Republicans passed an updated measure to address some of the panel’s objections. Lawmakers this week overrode Cooper’s veto of the amended law and Cooper sued.

Hours before the judicial panel temporarily blocked the new law, the chief lawyer for House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger dispensed quickly with debates over whether the changes focused on improving governance.

The dispute is “a partisan political battle masquerading as a separation of powers case,” attorney Noah Huffstetler said, urging the judges not to intervene. “The governor’s action in seeking to block … the statute before you today makes it absolutely clear that is the case.”

The previous and current versions of the elections board revamp take away Cooper’s authority to pick the majority of the five-member statewide elections board. That state board selects the members of the three-member local elections boards in all 100 counties. GOP legislators now want to divide the elections boards equally between Democrats and Republicans, with Cooper picking elections board members from lists of candidates compiled by the two major parties.

But a Republican would head the decision-making state board in presidential election years when most people vote and ballot disputes are hottest. The current Republican executive with day-to-day control couldn’t be replaced for at least two years, perhaps indefinitely if the board devolves into partisan deadlocks as the Federal Elections Commission has done for years, Cooper attorney Jim Phillips Jr. said.

GOP lawmakers said since Cooper ultimately picks elections board members from the candidates the parties offer, the law respects the state constitution’s separation of powers requirement and the judicial panel’s previous ruling.

No so, Phillips said.

The changes contradict a state Supreme Court ruling last year that found GOP legislative leaders usurped McCrory’s executive powers by planning to appoint most members to new environmental regulatory commissions, he said. The revised law likewise undercuts Cooper’s duty to execute laws by taking away his ability to select, supervise and replace the new, bipartisan elections board, Phillips said.

“The goal is the same — to deprive the governor of control necessary for him to ensure that this executive branch board… faithfully executes the state’s election laws,” Phillips said.

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Follow Emery P. Dalesio at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/emery-p-dalesio .

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