Tuesday, January 10, 2012

N.C. legislature's actions keeping lawyers busy

Job growth across the state may be lagging but N.C. lawmakers are at least keeping state (and other) lawyers busy. Another change by the Republican-controlled legislature is now in the courts.

A Wake County judge on Monday temporarily blocked lawmakers from instituting a law that prohibits members of the state teachers association from having their dues automatically deducted from state paychecks. The N.C. Association of Educators sued the state on Monday. The group is challenging the constitutionality of the move lawmakers made in a surprise session at nearly 1 in the morning last week.

This court challenge follows a series of others to legislative moves during the perpetual legislative session:

Planned Parenthood filed suit in the summer seeking to prevent the enforcement of the Planned Parenthood defunding amendment passed as part of the North Carolina budget during the 2011 legislative session. Planned Parenthood said the move cuts the group from federal money that comes through the state and is unconstitutional. A judge in August blocked the move and said funding must stay intact until the lawsuit is settled.

A judge in November also granted a preliminary injunction blocking the state's Division of Motor Vehicles from issuing the license plates, which say "Choose Life." The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is suing to block the plates, saying they violate the First Amendment because there's no specialty plate for supporters of abortion rights. Twenty-nine states either already make "Choose Life" plates available or have approved such plates but have not manufactured them. But the plates have a mixed record when it comes to court challenges, with some judges ruling states can sell them and others siding with challengers who say the plates are unconstitutional.

The legislature, faced with a huge budget shortfall this summer, also cut the state's pre-kindergarten program (then known as More at Four) by 20 percent. That meant no space for 6,000-plus at-risk kids. But in June, Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning declared that cut violated the state Constitution's guarantee of an equal, basic education for all. He ordered the state to provide pre-K to any at-risk 4-year-old who applied. (The Supreme Court appointed Manning to oversee its earlier ruling in a school-funding case known as Leandro.)

And as you read here Monday, lawmakers' redistricting maps are under fire. Democrats and the NAACP have filed suit to block them, and former UNC Charlotte professor Ted Arrington, an independent and respected expert on redistricting, filed an affidavit saying Republicans used race as a predominant factor in drawing new maps for congressional and legislative districts. A hearing is set for Thursday.

Elections have consequences. And wherever you sit politically in North Carolina, the changes and court actions show that. Politicians and interest groups have been aggressive about striking back over the last few months against changes don't like.

UNHAPPY CHRIS CHRISTIE: 'I'll change the court'
Republican N.J. Gov. Chris Christie has taken a truly aggressive stance to striking back against something he doesn't like. The Wall Street Journal reports he plans a new challenge to a court-ordered state education funding formula that has provided billions of dollars in extra funding to poverty-stricken schools. In an interview with The Journal, Christie said that he would nominate two state Supreme Court judges this spring who won't "grossly" overstep their powers - something he contends the state's high court did in ordering more school funding after he slashed state funding for schools. "Eventually, the court is going to admit it was wrong or I'm going to be able to change the court so that the new members are not as tethered to [that] decision," Christie said during a 45-minute interview with the Journal ahead of his State of the State speech.

In May, in a 3-2 decision, the state Supreme Court ruled that the governor's cuts to education funding were unconstitutional. The court ordered him to send about $500 million more to 31 of New Jersey's poorest and most underfunded school districts. The Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Christie's budget violated the state constitution by shortchanging the school funding plan adopted by the Legislature in 2008 and affirmed by the court in 2009.

We've noted in the past the similarities between the New Jersey school funding case and North Carolina's Leandro case. We don't expect Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue to try to get around this state's school funding case. She's been pushing the legislature to restore funds for the state's pre-kindergarten that Republican lawmakers stripped last summer. She now says she wants to use higher than expected state revenues to restore funding. But there might be some Republican lawmakers yearning for Christie's way of handling the situation eventhough the judge who's overseeing the N.C. case - Judge Manning - is a Republican.

- Posted by Fannie Flono