The outrageous partisan payback continues

The outrageous partisan payback continues

GOP absurdly targets Elaine Marshall for impeachment investigation

Secretary of State Elaine Marshall

North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler and Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry could both be eligible for impeachment soon. At least, that’s the obvious conclusion one must draw from the laughably outrageous action taken yesterday afternoon by members of the Rules Committee of the North Carolina House.

In a strictly partisan vote, Republican members of the committee approved a resolution introduced just hours before “establishing a select committee to investigate, report findings, and, if warranted, file articles of impeachment regarding Secretary of State Elaine F. Marshall.” Marshall, a Democrat, has served as Secretary of State for more than 20 years.

This is from a news story prepared by Laura Leslie for WRAL.com:

North Carolina legislative Republicans are taking aim once again at Democrats in the executive branch of state government.

Just hours after enacting a budget that slashes the budgets of Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein, both Democrats, a key House committee signed off on a resolution to begin the impeachment process against Democratic Secretary of State Elaine Marshall.

The vote was strictly party-line, with all 20 Republicans in attendance voting aye, and all 10 Democrats voting no.

‘Impeachment is a process. The first step will be a formal investigation of the matter’ by a House select committee, sponsor Rep. Chris Millis, R-Pender, said.

Millis claimed he has ‘clear evidence of malfeasance’ by Marshall involving ‘hundreds of unqualified aliens being illegally granted the public benefit of a notary commission.’

He also accused her of ‘false and misleading statements’ and ‘clandestine and secretive improper acceptance of other forms of documentation’ for notary applications.”

Leslie’s story goes on to explain that yesterday’s action stems from a longstanding beef that Millis (and Marshall’s opponent in last November’s election, Michael La Paglia) have had with Marshall’s office. In February, the arch-conservative Republican lawmaker held a press conference to complain about the standards he believed Marshall was using to approve notary applications – a ministerial function assigned to Marshall’s office. Millis – a passionate right-wing voice on immigration matters – thinks Marshall has been allowing some noncitizen immigrants to become notaries in violation of the law. LaPaglia made the same allegation during last fall’s campaign and has apparently been working with Millis on the issue since.

Marshall vehemently denies the accusation. Late yesterday, she released the following statement:

I strongly oppose today’s House Rules Committee resolution and I reject Representative Millis’ claim that any state or federal laws were broken by this Department.

My Office has never commissioned a notary public on the basis of a DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] card. We have openly communicated with the General Assembly about our process. We have always told the General Assembly that if they want to change the notary law, we will administer such changes. Not one single change has been sent to us to administer in this area.

The public should continue to have full confidence in the integrity of the more than 144,000 notaries public in North Carolina. Every single non-citizen we have commissioned as a notary public has presented appropriate federally-issued work authorization documentation to qualify as a notary.

I can only conclude that this is a political attack and nothing else.”

An outrageous and dangerous step

Rep. Chris Millis

The gist of the dispute appears to center around a convoluted and confusing area of law – the interplay between various state and federal statutes related to immigration policy. It’s the contention of Millis – a non-lawyer – that Marshall has somehow violated a federal law that proscribes conferring public benefits (a notary license arguably qualifies as such) on certain groups of noncitizens.

Marshall, who is a lawyer, counters that she has done no such thing and argues adamantly that she has only granted licenses to people who meet all legal requirements – including G.S. 10B-5(b) of the North Carolina statutes, which requires all notaries to “reside legally in the United States.” Indeed, she made just such an argument earlier this year to a legislative oversight committee and asked lawmakers for clarifying legislation if they were unsatisfied with her interpretation of the law. No such legislation or any official directive was forthcoming.

Especially given this backdrop, yesterday’s committee vote was a truly remarkable and disturbing step. The act of exploring impeachment proceedings against a duly elected public official ought to be a solemn and momentous step that’s only taken under the most extreme circumstances.

Even if Millis were right in his assessment of the law, to take such action against an elected official based merely on a difference of opinion in applying an array of statutes within his or her purview appears to be unprecedented in state history. It is certainly unprecedented in modern times.

It also establishes what could be a terribly dangerous precedent and, quite possibly, an ongoing constitutional crisis. Think about it: if state lawmakers can initiate impeachment investigations and even commence actual impeachment proceedings over such differences, where does it end?

Just last week, an official audit concluded that state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler was failing to properly enforce state dairy inspection laws. In years past, state Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry has been accused repeatedly of failing to fulfill her sworn duty to enforce state worker protection statutes.

The list goes on and on. There isn’t a governor in modern state history who hasn’t been sued successfully for his or her failure to interpret and/or enforce a particular law or regulation. Indeed, the General Assembly itself has been found repeatedly to have violated federal law and the U.S. Constitution. Should some sort of mass self-impeachment be commenced over that?

Political payback at its worst

What yesterday’s action really represented, of course, was just the latest iteration of the kind of partisan payback and bullying that state Republican leaders have made a key component of their approach to governing. As with the destructive, last minute funding cuts that the new state budget inflicted on Governor Cooper and Attorney General Stein in recent days, the notion that lawmakers would have taken such action against a Republican Secretary of State with whom they disagreed is downright laughable.

The only thing funnier was Representative Millis’s contention yesterday when, in opposing a proposed amendment from Democrats to make the investigative committee evenly divided between the two parties, he explained his opposition as based on a desire to keep partisan politics out of the matter. That, and the embarrassing gymnastics that intelligent Republican lawmakers who knew better (like Nelson Dollar of Wake County and John Blust of Guilford County) went through to justify their support of the resolution. The only Republican on the committee who failed to support the scheme was Rep. Chuck McGrady, a moderate Republican from Henderson County, who simply failed to show up for the meeting.

And speaking of partisan games and political payback, there was speculation in some circles that yesterday’s kangaroo committee meeting may simply have been the latest sop tossed by House Speaker Tim Moore to right-wing fire breathers in his GOP caucus who continually carp that his speakership is insufficiently radical.

Millis, in particular, is no doubt raising heck because his much ballyhooed proposal to deregulate firearm “concealed carry” has stalled in the Senate after passing the House. Could Moore have let Millis’ wacky impeachment investigation proceed in order to provide a risk-free salve for a backbencher’s wounds? We’ll probably never know, but it seems at least plausible that Moore, an attorney, understands the folly of the initiative but decided to let it proceed knowing that it would later die of its own massive and immovable weight.

Going forward

Whatever the specific explanation for yesterday’s development, it was – like so many other dreadful and precedent-shattering actions of recent years on Jones Street – an amazingly brazen and cynical act by a legislature that keeps outdoing itself.

At such a moment, one can only marvel and wonder “what could possibly be next?”

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.
rob@ncpolicywatch.com
919-861-2065