North Carolina Senate budget changes way/structure courts can strike laws as unconstitutional; fourth state in 4 years to consider such an effort

North Carolina’s Senate budget passed early Saturday morning included a myriad of changes to statutes, but one item in particular stands out as a Gavel to Gavel reader pointed out to me via email. The Senate-approved budget changes the way the state’s trial courts can strike down a law as unconstitutional, this apparently in anger at a recent decision by a trial judge striking down a 2013 NC law that would strip teachers of tenure in exchange for raises.

Under Section 18B.16.(a) of SB 744 as approved by the Senate any challenge to a statute on constitutional grounds would have to be tried or determined by panels of 3 Superior Court judges. The bill is based on a 2003 law that allows for challenges of redistricting lines to be heard by a three-judge panel of the Superior Court of Wake County. This new version, however, goes beyond Wake County and requires that the three judge panel be selected by the Chief Justice from certain parts of the state (1 from First or Second Judicial Division, 1 from Seventh or Eighth, 1 from Third, Fourth, Fifth, or Sixth). Media coverage of the proposal can be found here.

As I noted when this came up in the context of Oklahoma, no state provides for three-judge panels to address the issue of striking ANY law as unconstitutional; where they do exist they usually are created to address a particular, limited subject such as redistricting (NC & WI) or school funding (KS). My review of those laws is here.

North Carolina is now the fourth state in 4 years to try to change the ways judges can strike down state laws or rule against the legislature.

  1. Oklahoma (2014)- HB 2686 would require a challenge to the constitutionality of any state statute be heard by a panel of the state’s main trial court (District). The panel would be made of “at least three district judges”: the original district judge assigned and “additional judges assigned randomly” to the case. The House approved the bill 55-33 in March 2014 but the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected it in April.
  2. Michigan (2013)- SB 652 began with anger by the legislature over decisions by the state’s Court of Claims (a specially designated judge of the Ingham County Circuit Court, where the capital is located) over Michigan’s emergency manager and right-to-work laws. Under SB 652 as enacted in the constitutionally minimum amount of time the Court of Claims is no longer an Ingham County Circuit Court Judge but 4 judges of the state’s Court of Appeals chosen by the Chief Justice. Details here and here.
  3. Wisconsin (2013/2014)- As introduced, AB 161 provided that a trial judge/court could declare a law unconstitutional but any order by the trial court prohibiting enforcement was automatically stayed and the law allowed to remain in effect if the state filed a petition for interlocutory review was filed within ten days after the entry of the order. It derived from a case in which a Dane County judge struck down a state law (Act 10) the weakened collective bargaining in the state. What was eventually enacted provided that “If a circuit court or a court of appeals enters an injunction, a restraining order, or any other final or interlocutory order suspending or restraining the enforcement of any statute of this state, the injunction, restraining order, or other final or interlocutory order is immediately appealable as a matter of right.”
  4. Oklahoma (2012)- SJR 84 was a constitutional amendment that would have stripped the state’s Supreme Court of the power to strike down any law passed by the legislature as unconstitutional. Instead, the legislature itself would create an “Ad Hoc Court of Constitutional Review” in such cases. It was filed in the Senate Judiciary Committee but proceeded no further.
  5. Wisconsin (2011)- angry that challenges to state laws were being heard and struck down by judges of Dane County, the Wisconsin legislature enacted SB 117. Under it, actions in which state government is the sole party may be filed in any county in the state. Appeals must be heard in a Court of Appeals district  other than the one in which the case was filed. Moreover, the appellant (the state, in cases where a law is struck down at the trial level) would be allowed to pick the Court of Appeals district they want the appeal heard in.