RALEIGH — Gov. Pat McCrory’s top legal adviser is questioning whether North Carolina’s attorney general is capable of defending the state from a federal lawsuit alleging new Republican-backed voting changes are intended to suppress minority voter turnout.
Bob Stephens, McCrory’s chief legal counsel, said Tuesday comments made by Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper opposing the new voting law left the state’s GOP governor no choice but to hire his own outside lawyer to buttress the state’s defense. McCrory has retained at taxpayers’ expense a South Carolina lawyer who has close ties to the Republican Party and bills $360 an hour.
Stephens was put forward by the McCrory administration to speak shortly after Cooper told reporters he had neither requested nor needs the additional help.
The attorney general sent the governor a July 26 letter urging him to veto the sweeping elections bill approved by the GOP-dominated state legislature, which cuts early voting by a week, ends same-day voter registration and includes a stringent photo ID requirement. The measure also eliminated a popular high school civics program that encouraged students to register to vote in advance of their 18th birthdays.
More than 70 percent of African-Americans who cast a ballot in North Carolina during the past two presidential elections voted early. Studies show minority voters are also more likely to lack a driver’s license.
Cooper said in the letter he “strongly opposed” the new measures, which he said would severely restrict working people’s opportunities to vote early and on weekends, prevent new voters from pre-registering and stop people from voting if they show up at the wrong polling place by mistake. Cooper also warned the changes were highly likely to face court challenges.
After McCrory signed the bill into law, Cooper released another statement on Aug. 12 reiterating his position.
Stephens repeated some of those comments Tuesday, pointing out they had been quoted by lawyers at the U.S. Justice Department in their challenge to the North Carolina law filed in federal court on Monday.
“I was concerned then and I am concerned today that comments he has made that have been critical of this legislation has compromised his ability to represent the state of North Carolina,” Stephens said. “I look at that and I ask myself, how can someone say something like that and then turn around and represent the people of North Carolina in this litigation? And I concluded that I don’t think that he can.”
Cooper reiterated earlier Tuesday it is his duty as both an elected official and legal professional to vigorously defend the state, even if he personally disagrees with arguments made by his office in court. Hiring more lawyers “just ends up costing more money” for taxpayers, he told reporters.
“Our office has the primary responsibility for defending this and other lawsuits. I think it’s unnecessary to hire additional attorneys,” Cooper said. “I consider it part of my duty as attorney general to weigh in on important public policy issues, but under the law it is our duty to defend the state when it gets sued and we’re going to continue to do that.”
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in Washington on Monday his agency would show that the intent of the North Carolina law is to suppress voter turnout, especially among minority and low-income voters. At least three other legal challenges have been filed against the law by the North Carolina Chapter of the NAACP and other civil rights groups.
The outside lawyer hired by McCrory is Karl S. “Butch” Bowers Jr. of Columbia, S.C. He is a member of the Republican National Lawyers Association and served during the Justice Department’s special counsel for voting matters during the administration of President George W. Bush. Bowers has also represented the South Carolina Republican Party and recently defended that state’s GOP governor, Nikki Haley, to resolve an ethics complaint.
N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis have hired their own counsel to defend the voting law changes: the law firm Ogletree Deakins. That firm includes Tom Farr, who the GOP legislative leaders earlier hired to defend redistricting maps approved in 2011.