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Former governors, chief justices right to oppose amendments

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When all of the state’s living former governors, including Pat McCrory, and all of the state’s former chief justices, including arch-conservative I. Beverly Lake Jr., come out against something unanimously, chances are it’s a bad idea.

Even the General Assembly had to notice — especially after it lost a lawsuit. So, legislative leaders are trying a makeover.

In our last episode, North Carolina’s legislature threw six constitutional amendments in front of voters for November.

Most were a rather sketchy lot. Some — for example, one to create a constitutional right to hunt and fish “traditionally” — seemed designed to get the Republican base to the polls in a midterm election.

Two were especially pernicious. One would have stripped the governor of the power to appoint members of most state boards and commissions. Another provided that the legislators, not the governor, would fill court vacancies that occur between elections.

These are the measures the governors and the chief justices opposed, arguing that they would wreck the state’s separation of powers and prove baldly political.

Then a panel of three state judges, responding to a lawsuit by Gov. Roy Cooper, threw these two amendments off the ballot, ruling that the wording was vague and misleading.

(Since the legalese text needed to make the amendments actual laws is too long, only a short description is on the ballot. Cooper argued that the descriptions the legislature wrote didn’t fairly describe what the two amendments would actually do. The judges agreed.)

So, our Honorables pulled themselves into special session yet again and gave the descriptions a makeover. The revised versions are less odious than the originals, but still bad.

In regards to the courts, one amendment would set up a complex network with a “Nonpartisan Judicial Merit Commission” and several local merit boards to come up with nominees. In the end, however, for any vacancy, the governor could only pick from a list of two candidates — both chosen by the legislature.

The other amendment left most of the governor’s appointment powers intact — except for the state ethics and elections board. Here, the governor would have to choose from a list again — this one drawn up by the party leaders in the legislature.

Moreover, the amendment would reduce the board to eight members, effectively four Democrats and four Republicans. (Currently, the board has nine members, the ninth required to be unaffiliated with any party.)

Since those board members would be nominated by legislative honchos, it’s safe to say they’d be fierce and loyal partisans. Which means that almost any vexing political question before the “reformed” board would result in a 4-4 split.

Which means that the results of any closely contested election would almost certainly wind up in the courts. Which (if the other amendment passes) would be staffed by loyal members of the majority party in the legislature.

Cooper is right; this is still a bald, partisan power play that would weaken state government, leaving it more venal and more vulnerable to corruption. Regardless of which party holds the executive office, we need to preserve a legitimate balance of power in state government. That is why Republican former governors — including Pat McCrory, who’s not exactly a big fan of the current governor — spoke out.

If these two amendments ever do make it to the ballot, voters should reject them outright.

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