By Jeff Moore
The state House voted 58-47 on Wednesday, Sept. 15, to endorse a bill requiring the state attorney general to get approval from legislative leaders before settling lawsuits on their behalf. The bill now heads to the governor.
The measure passed on a party-line vote, with Republicans supporting it and Democrats opposing it.
Senate Bill 360 is titled “Prohibit Collusive Settlements by the AG.”
“Many of you were here last session, in summer of 2020, when — facing a pandemic — we had members of both parties … create a bipartisan elections bill because we were dealing with COVID,” said Rep. Destin Hall, R-Caldwell, while explaining the bill’s origins. “We wanted people to be able to vote safely while also ensuring that we had election integrity.”
“We did that,” Hall added. “We worked for weeks on that bill, … and the ultimate product was a bill that passed, 105-14.”
The Senate and governor also signed off on the measure. It became law. But groups aligned with the Democratic Party filed suit against the state’s new COVID-inspired election rules, Hall explained.
“The problem came in September 2020, when a supposed or alleged settlement was reached between the … Democratic governor’s State Board of Elections and Democratic groups who had sued,” Hall said. “So essentially it became a friendly lawsuit at that point.”
“Even though the General Assembly was a party to that lawsuit, they were not given the opportunity to sign off on it,” Hall said.
“This was 41 days before the 2020 election,” he added. “A million absentee ballots had been requested; 225,000 people had already voted in this election. This settlement agreement changed the rules of the game in the middle of an election.”
“I don’t care how you’re changing them — that never makes sense,” Hall said. “We should have one set of rules for an election, and they shouldn’t be changed right in the middle of it, especially after this body has just come together and enacted a bipartisan bill to deal with an election during a pandemic.”
The House speaker and Senate president pro tem filed a lawsuit at the time to block settlement provisions from taking effect.
S.B. 360 would apply only to future lawsuits. “It would require in these lawsuits from now on that the [president] pro tem in the Senate and the speaker of the House — whoever those people maybe — have to sign off on a settlement agreement,” Hall said. “It doesn’t mean that we’re going to get the outcome that the speaker and the pro tem in the Senate want. It just means that if you’re going to settle a case, then those two individuals … will have to agree to it.”
“That makes sense because that’s how a lawsuit works,” he added. “When it becomes a friendly suit, and two friends sue each other so they can have a pretend settlement agreement and change the laws of this state, it’s not right. It throws doubt into our elections, and it creates chaos.”
Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, objected that the bill should have been put forward as a proposed constitutional amendment. She argued that it would change the duties of the attorney general spelled out in the Constitution.
Morey said, “If you don’t like what our attorney general is doing in settling cases that constitutionally he is obligated to, then run for attorney general.”
“This bill is dangerous,” she added. “I think it’s unconstitutional, saying the legislative body shall have oversight of legal proceedings.”
Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-Surry, responded to Democrats’ objections. “As an attorney who’s practiced for years and years, I’ve never been able to settle — and no judge has been willing to accept a settlement — that was not signed by all the parties. The state of North Carolina was a party here. We had an interest. We still have an interest. But we were not even consulted.”
The Senate approved S.B. 360 on a 28-21 party-line vote in April. Once the bill is officially presented to Gov. Roy Cooper, he will have 10 days to sign it, veto it, or allow it to become law without his signature.