A Wake County judge has struck down as unconstitutional a law that authorized former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in his final days in office to name the top leaders of the agency that decides compensation for thousands of workers injured on the job.
Those appointments normally would have belonged to incoming Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
Wake County Superior Court Judge Henry Hight, in a ruling filed on Monday, found that the legislature’s actions in 2016 violated North Carolina’s constitutional separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. The judge said the legislation deprived Cooper of appointees who “share his policy views and priorities.”
It was the latest in a series of judicial rebukes to the Republican majority in the legislature, which has adopted a series of laws to strengthen its grip over the state’s government in recent years. Federal courts have struck down the legislature’s reshaping of legislative and congressional districts along boundaries favoring Republicans and its restructuring of the state elections board.
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Upon learning of Hight’s ruling, Cooper promptly named sitting Commissioner Philip Baddour, a Democrat, as the commission’s new chair and another Democrat, Deputy Commissioner Myra Griffin, as vice chair of the North Carolina Industrial Commission.
In what Cooper’s office this week called a “power grab,” the legislature voted on Dec. 15, 2016 to authorize McCrory to name the agency’s chair and vice chair. The commission chair controls the hiring and firing of about 20 deputy commissioners who act as judges to decide disputed claims by injured workers and a range of other claimants, including those alleging harm from vaccines and seeking damages for wrongful felony convictions.
The legislation enabled McCrory to appoint sitting Commissioner Charlton Allen, a McCrory appointee, as the commission’s chairman on Dec. 30, 2016 – two days before Cooper was to take office. At the same time, McCrory also carried out a provision in the legislation designed to benefit one person – Yolanda Stith, wife of his then-chief of staff, Thomas Stith.
McCrory appointed her to a six-figure job as the agency’s vice commissioner under a onetime arrangement allowing her to finish the last half of a vacant seat, followed by a full six-year term. All of the other five commissioners are limited to six-year terms.
The amendment effectively giving Stith a nine-year term “was intended to reward one person, and only one person, with a special, extended term on the Industrial Commission,” Hight wrote in his 19-page opinion. “Accordingly, the court finds that the amendment was not intended to promote the general welfare of the State.”
Because the commissioners’ terms are staggered, “barring an unexpected vacancy, Governor Cooper will not have appointed a majority of Commission members until the final year of his first term” if the legislation remained intact, the judge wrote.
Control of the Industrial Commission has been a hotly contested matter between the state’s business lobby and plaintiffs’ attorneys who represent injured workers.
Legislation passed at the same time also sought to restructure the North Carolina elections board, merging it with the state ethics commission, with the stated intent of making it bipartisan. The elections board is normally controlled by the governor’s party.
Cooper, who at the time was North Carolina’s attorney general, sued Senate leader Philip Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore within hours of McCrory’s appointments. He won a preliminary injunction of the changes to the election board days later, but the court reversal of the Industrial Commission provisions took nearly half of his four-year term.
Republicans could appeal the latest ruling, but Democrats hold a 5-2 edge on the state Supreme Court.