- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 7, 2017

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A North Carolina court heard arguments Tuesday about whether it should temporarily halt a new law that subjects Gov. Roy Cooper’s Cabinet members to state Senate confirmation.

Three Superior Court judges didn’t immediately rule after an hourlong conference call with attorneys for the Democratic governor and the Republican legislative leaders.

Cooper sued over the law last month, but asked the judicial panel to step in now because a Senate committee scheduled time Wednesday to ask questions of Larry Hall, Cooper’s choice to run the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. An order being sought by Cooper would block the Senate from exercising the authority they claim at least until a further hearing set for Friday, when judges would weigh postponing the law’s enforcement until an ultimate resolution of the court challenge.

The law was one of several provisions approved by the General Assembly just two weeks before Cooper took office that reduced or checked his powers as governor. The moves were criticized by Democrats as a partisan effort to undermine the authority of the governor and Cooper sued the legislative leaders.

Legislative leaders say the confirmation law is sound and in line with a provision in the state Constitution subjecting gubernatorial nominees to the “advice and consent” of a majority of senators.

But Jim Phillips, one of Cooper’s attorneys, told the judges that legislators misconstrued the constitutional authority to apply to the governor’s department heads. In effect, the General Assembly is claiming authority “to in effect veto the governor’s cabinet choices,” Phillips said.

Cooper’s top aides have warned that the governor’s appointments would be forced under the law to waste a lot of time preparing for Senate hearings when they should be learning about state operations and ensuring things are running smoothly.

“There are multiple hearings and multiple votes for each Cabinet secretary” planned by the Senate, Phillips said.

Martin Warf, an attorney for Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, countered that Cooper can nominate, supervise and control his Cabinet officers, but the state Constitution specifically gives the Senate advice and consent powers.

“Who are we to question how they exercise that power?” Warf asked.

Another lawyer for the legislative leaders, Noah Huffstetler, said the confirmation process will be much less arduous than what Phillips has detailed.

Senate Republicans have said they are aiming only to determine in a public forum whether to determine whether Cooper’s choices are capable of performing the job, lacked conflicts of interest and planned to follow the law.

Huffstetler also argued the judicial panel moving to tell the legislature not to meet or take action would be just as improper as the General Assembly directing a court how to handle a case before it. Only if Hall is rejected by senators on Wednesday could Cooper claim the harm required for the court to step in at this early stage.

“Let’s see what happens,” Huffstetler said.

The three-judge panel, led by Gaston County Superior Court Judge Jesse Caldwell, signed off the conference call so judges could confer and make a decision. “We don’t know exactly when that will be,” Caldwell said.

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