Raleigh, N.C. — Despite a court order instructing lawmakers not to enforce a new law subjecting Gov. Roy Cooper’s cabinet nominees to confirmation hearings, members of the Senate Commerce Committee took their seats at 11 a.m. Wednesday and appeared prepared to examine former state Rep. Larry Hall, D-Durham.
But Hall, Cooper’s nominee to head the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, never showed up.
Instead, Committee Chairman Sen. Wesley Meredith chided Hall for ignoring the hearing and then read a statement inveighing against Tuesday night’s court order. He then immediately banged his gavel to adjourn the meeting.
“The attempt by three judges to stop today’s proceedings is unprecedented in state history,” Meredith, R-Cumberland, said. “Never before has a judge told the representatives elected by the citizens that they cannot hold a committee meeting as allowed by the constitution.”
While the committee was ready to proceed, he said, the committee would delay its work because Hall didn’t show up.
“Make no mistake: the General Assembly will meet to review the qualifications of Gov. Cooper’s cabinet nominees as allowed by the constitution, and we are going to get answers to questions regarding their qualifications, potential conflicts of interest and willingness to obey the law,” he said.
The three-way standoff between the governor, legislature and the courts has its roots in a law Republican lawmakers pushed through in December shortly after Cooper, a Democrat, ousted Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Among other things, the law set up a process for state senators to sign off on Cooper’s cabinet nominees, something that hasn’t been done before.
Republican lawmakers say the constitution gives them the power to review nominees, even if it’s never been exercised before. But Cooper says a recent state Supreme Court ruling clarifies the constitutional language and makes clear lawmakers can’t interfere with gubernatorial appointments.
A three-judge panel sided, at least temporarily, with Cooper, issuing a temporary restraining order putting the confirmation process on hold until Friday. That’s when the same trio of judges is set to decide whether they should extend their block on the law until a trial in March.
“It was an absolute charade for them even to come in here and hold this meeting,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, saying that Republican senators were openly flouting the court order.
Top Republicans have said that one of the key reasons they want to hold confirmation hearings is to make sure gubernatorial nominees will “follow the law.” Asked if Republicans weren’t failing that very standard by ignoring the court and holding a hearing Wednesday, Rules Chairman Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, said, “I don’t think so,” but refused to elaborate.
In a statement Tuesday night, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said the judges “decision to legislate from the bench will have profound consequences,” something that McKissick described Wednesday as a “veiled threat. I think it’s improper.”
Asked to explain that statement, a spokeswoman for Berger, R-Rockingham, said, “We are letting the statement speak for itself.”