Tuesday, 16 April 2019 12:37

Cooper selections give Democrats 8-7 edge on court of appeals

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RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper has reconfigured the N.C. Court of Appeals into an 8-7 Democratic majority with his latest two appointments.

Cooper, a Democrat, announced Monday, April 15, he appointed Democrats Reuben Young and Christopher Brook to fill two seats on the second highest court in the state. With a 6-1 Democratic edge on the state Supreme Court, Democrats now have voting control of both of North Carolina’s statewide appellate courts.

Young and Brook replace Judges Bob Hunter, a Republican, who had to step down earlier this month after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 72, and Democrat Mark Davis, who Cooper elevated to the state Supreme Court in March.

Davis filled the vacant seat of former Republican Chief Justice Mark Martin, who resigned to become dean of the law school at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Cooper named Democratic Justice Cheri Beasley to succeed Martin as chief justice.

Beasley, Davis, Young, and Brook would have to stand for election in November 2020 if they wish to serve full eight-year terms.

“The work of the North Carolina Court of Appeals must instill confidence in the people of our state, reminding them they live within a fair and just society,” Cooper said. “These appointees will bring extensive legal experience to their service on the court.”  

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, wasted no time criticizing Cooper’s appointments.

“Governor Cooper continues to demonstrate that his previous calls for a nonpartisan judiciary were just empty political rhetoric. Gov. Cooper continues to pack the court with partisan Democrats who will rubber stamp his will,” Berger said in a written statement.

“One appointee is the legal director of the ACLU and has been the lead plaintiff’s attorney in political lawsuits against the Republican-led General Assembly, and the other is a former Gov. [Bev] Perdue staffer who was first put on the judiciary during the heavily criticized midnight appointments at the very end of Perdue’s tenure,” Berger said.

While serving as chief legal counsel for former Democratic Gov. Mike Easley, Young was a central figure in a public records lawsuit filed by several media organizations, including Carolina Journal. Easley ultimately pleaded guilty to a felony campaign violation.

Easley’s flight records were under intense scrutiny in 2010 after CJ and others reported campaign donors were flying him on private planes and weren’t being reimbursed. (These amounted to unreported campaign contributions.) Easley also got a $137,000 cash discount at closing when he bought a coastal lot in Bogue Sound, and his wife Mary got a six-figure salary at N.C. State University for a job requiring little work. The university chancellor and provost lost their jobs because of it.

Young testified at a court-ordered deposition he didn’t know the governor used a private email account to conduct state business. Nor did he know about an order for staff to delete emails sent to and from that address. Young said he paid no attention to who was sending and receiving emails when he reviewed their messages as part of open records requests. He had more than 30 memory lapses during the deposition.

 Cooper, who takes credit for rewriting the state’s public record laws, was attorney general at the time. Yet he argued against the media obtaining Easley’s personal emails, even if Easley violated mandatory disclosure laws. Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning ruled against Cooper’s argument the media had no standing to seek the public records.

Young, chief deputy secretary for adult corrections and juvenile justice at the N.C. Department of Public Safety, served for five years as a Superior Court special judge and as Secretary of Public Safety.

Brook is legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. He previously served as a staff attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and as an attorney in private practice. 

The Court of Appeals is the state’s intermediate appellate court. Its 15 judges serve eight-year terms. Three-member panels hear appeals from lower trial courts, but rule only on whether errors of law or legal procedure occurred. They don’t question the facts of a case. Some state administrative agencies file appeals directly to the Court of Appeals.