Gov. Pat McCrory

Gov. Pat McCrory

Lawmakers direct who will judge their laws

The Associated Press

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RALEIGH — North Carolina lawmakers are making it harder to contest their decisions in court by establishing an unprecedented system to hear cases challenging whether laws are constitutional.

The state budget legislators approved and Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law last week creates the new system after Republican lawmakers found many of their initiatives stymied in state and federal courts, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported Sunday. Those initiatives taken to court include imposing new conditions on abortions and elections, taking away teacher tenure and providing vouchers for private school tuition.

Starting next month, state constitutional challenges to laws will be heard by three-judge trial court panels appointed by the North Carolina Supreme Court’s chief justice and meeting in Raleigh. That means individual Superior Court judges around the state will no longer consider the challenges.

The goal of Republican legislative leaders is preventing plaintiffs from shopping for sympathetic judges who can at least temporarily halt the will of the majority of lawmakers and the governor. Democrats have said their GOP colleagues were seeking insurance after passing unconstitutional legislation.

No other state has taken such a step. A handful of states have used judicial panels for rare and specific purposes but not for constitutional challenges, said William Raftery, an analyst with the National Center for State Courts.

Two other provisions in the new law are also controversial.

One requirement sends appeals directly to the Supreme Court, adding to that court’s duties that has been to hear only the most important cases after lower courts filtered out the rest. Only a limited number of cases can be heard by the high court, and that restricts citizens’ right to appeal, said Catharine Arrowood, president of the North Carolina Bar Association. The trade association for lawyers opposes the new law.

Another provision allows the state to enforce a law until appeals can be resolved. That itself court be unconstitutional, Arrowood said.

“You could have a statute requiring businesses to do certain things and a court says that’s unconstitutional, then you have to operate under the burden of the statute for years to appeal it,” she said. “Who pays for the damages?”