RALEIGH, N.C. — A North Carolina judge granted a small victory to the state's incoming Democratic governor on Friday, temporarily blocking a law by Republican lawmakers stripping him of control over elections in a legislative power play just weeks ago.
Wake County Superior Court Judge Don Stephens blocked the new law, which would end the control governors exert over statewide and county election boards, as Gov.-Elect Roy Cooper is set to take office Sunday.
Stephens ruled that the risk to future free and fair elections justified the temporary block and said he plans to review the law more closely Thursday.
North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin also could appoint a three-judge panel to hear Cooper's challenge to the law's constitutionality.
Cooper sued on Friday to block the law, which passed two weeks ago. He said the GOP-led General Assembly's action is unconstitutional because it violates separation of powers by giving legislators too much control over how election laws are administered. Under current law, all elections boards would become controlled by Democrats in 2017 — unless the legislation in question takes effect.
Though that law creates a new body described as independent, Stephens got a lawyer representing Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore — both Republicans — to admit that legislators would exert the greatest control on the new, combined elections and ethics board.
"That's what I thought the answer was," Stephens said during an emergency hearing Friday.
The new law came as part of two special General Assembly sessions this month. In the first, legislators passed a package of laws limiting Cooper's power in several ways. In the second, legislators came together to repeal the law known as the "the bathroom bill." The controversial legislation directs transgender people to use public bathrooms that correspond with the gender on their birth certificates and limits other protections for LGBT people. But the deal to repeal it was thwarted, dealing Cooper another blow before he even took office.
The changes to the law at the center of Cooper's Friday lawsuit convert the five-member state elections board from one with a partisan majority matching the governor's into a bipartisan body with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. County election boards would have two members from each party, rather than the current three members with a majority from the governor's party
Cooper argued that the new law could create longer lines at polling places, less early voting and general difficulty for voters.
"This complex new law passed in just two days by the Republican legislature is unconstitutional and anything but bipartisan," he said in a statement. "A tie on a partisan vote would accomplish what many Republicans want: making it harder for North Carolinians to vote."
But Berger said Cooper was trying to preserve his own power.
"Given the recent weeks-(backslash)long uncertainty surrounding his own election, the governor-elect should understand better than anyone why North Carolinians deserve a system they can trust will settle election outcomes fairly and without the taint of partisanship," Berger said in a statement.
Cooper won the November election against outgoing Republican Gov. Pat McCrory by about 10,000 votes out of 4.7 million. The transition was made bumpier by a protracted debate over vote-counting. McCrory didn't concede until a month after the election.
The state Republican Party and its allies filed dozens of formal complaints about alleged voter fraud. Almost all of the protests were dismissed or sidelined by elections boards on which Republicans held the majority.
Cooper's lawsuit makes good on his previous threats to take Republicans to court over laws cutting his powers passed during a surprise special session two weeks ago.
Another of the laws requires Cooper's Cabinet choices to be confirmed by legislators. The state constitution gives the Senate the ability to "advise and consent" to the governor's appointees by a majority vote, but that provision hadn't been used in at least several decades.
Cooper attorney Jim Phillips Jr. told Stephens that more legal challenges are planned next week against the laws diminishing the incoming governor's powers.
Lawmakers themselves will face unexpected elections in 2017 after a panel of federal judges ruled that Republicans unlawfully clustered black voters when drawing legislative districts to diminish their influence. The judges ordered North Carolina lawmakers to redraw districts by March 15 and to hold new elections in November.
Also Friday, outgoing Gov. McCrory told The Associated Press in an interview that he had a cordial meeting with Cooper a day earlier and showed him around the governor's mansion. But McCrory also complained that his administration had to work through the holidays to prepare for a handover because of Cooper's decision to be sworn in minutes after midnight Jan. 1.