- Associated Press - Monday, February 6, 2017

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper is returning to court to try to prevent his Cabinet secretaries from being subjected to confirmation hearings starting this week that he argues are unconstitutional.

Cooper’s outside lawyers asked a three-judge panel late Monday to temporarily block enforcement of the law directing his department heads be subject to the “advice and consent” of a majority of senators.

Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said the hearing on the motion was expected Tuesday, a day before Larry Hall, the secretary of military and veterans’ affairs, was asked to come before the Senate Commerce and Insurance Committee for anticipated questions.

The confirmation mandate was approved two weeks before the Democratic governor took office Jan. 1 by Republican lawmakers, who cited the state Constitution as giving senators the authority to formally scrutinize the Cabinet members. Senate leaders laid out a process last week in which policy committee would review Cooper’s eight announced secretaries - one or two a week - through mid-March.

Cooper’s attorneys argue that the Senate’s “advice and consent” authority only applies to “constitutional officers” and not to his department heads. The hearings would disrupt his appointees’ effort to supervise their departments, they say.

“The governor and his staff spent months identifying and recruiting experienced, effective leaders with the subject-matter expertise to run a principal department in accordance with the governor’s policy priorities and goals,” Cooper’s lawyers wrote Monday. The confirmation process, they added, “would render that work meaningless, instead requiring the governor to appoint principal department heads who will mollify the Senate.”

Cooper had sued legislative leaders over the confirmation requirement last month. But he hadn’t requested the law be blocked immediately, according to Monday’s filing, in the belief the legal arguments would be settled quickly. Cooper said over the past week that he hoped he could reach an agreement with Senate leaders to delay the hearings, even writing a letter earlier Monday to Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, the chamber leader.

“Those attempts did not yield any progress,” spokesman Ford Porter said in an email.

Senate Republicans say their constitutional authority to confirm the governor’s Cabinet, which has not been used in at least several decades, is sound. They say the public has the right to see a governor’s Cabinet choices face scrutiny in an open forum. Cabinet secretaries have been meeting behind closed doors with legislative leaders for years to discuss their qualification and address concerns, Berger said.

“I don’t see why we should wait to determine whether or not they have a conflict of interest, whether or not they are qualified for the positions, whether or not they will follow the law,” Berger told reporters Monday before Cooper’s court filing.

The co-chairmen of the Senate Commerce and Insurance Committee delivered a letter Monday to Hall laying out the scope for information the panel may request of him at Wednesday’s hearing.

The letter, provided by Berger’s office, says senators may ask Hall, a former House member, whether he has plans to pursue outside employment while leading the department. They also could ask about political contributions he’s made during the past 10 years and other potential or actual areas of conflict from previous employment or advocacy work.

The confirmation law was one of several that the GOP-controlled legislature approved in December that reduced or checked the new governor’s powers. Cooper has sued over other provisions. A three-judge panel blocked enforcement of one law related to gubernatorial oversight of elections.

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