Remember the quote–attributed to John Adams–to the effect that the then-new American Constitution had created “a government of laws, not men”?
One of the most important improvements in our human efforts to improve governance was development of the concept of rule of law–the radical notion that fair rules should be established and everyone–including government officials and others in positions of power– should be expected to follow those rules (including the rules on how rules should be changed).
Adherence to the rule of law, in spirit and fact, is absolutely essential to the legitimacy of a governing authority.
Which brings us to the truly outrageous behavior of Republican lawmakers in North Carolina. As the New York Times reported earlier this week,
Republicans in the North Carolina legislature on Wednesday took the highly unusual step of moving to strip power from the incoming Democratic governor after a bitter election that extended years of fierce ideological battles in the state.
After calling a surprise special session, Republican lawmakers who control the General Assembly introduced measures to end the governor’s control over election boards, to require State Senate approval of the new governor’s cabinet members and to strip his power to appoint University of North Carolina trustees.
Republicans also proposed to substantially cut the number of state employees who serve at the governor’s pleasure, giving Civil Service protections to hundreds of managers in state agencies who have executed the priorities of Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican.
These extraordinary steps–taken in the wake of a democratic (note small “d”) election that produced a result displeasing to the state’s GOP–unquestionably violate democratic norms, and may well violate the North Carolina state constitution.
The election of a Democratic governor came despite sustained Republican efforts to suppress African-American votes–efforts so transparently and blatantly aimed at (disproportionately Democratic) black voters that a court described them as “surgical.” Several of those measures were struck down, but a number of others–moving polling places, shortening voting hours–had the intended effect.
Even in the face of massive vote suppression, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate somehow won.Hence the special session to strip the new Governor of authority–and the transformation of North Carolina government into an illegitimate putsch.
As the Times editorialized
This legislative power grab is the latest underhanded step by a state Republican Party desperate to stay in power in a state where demographic changes would normally benefit Democrats. Republicans in North Carolina, a presidential battleground state, have used aggressive redistricting and voting suppression measures that are among the most brazen in the nation to win elections. The courts have blocked some of these efforts, but Republicans have found workarounds, for instance, by limiting voting hours and sites.
Calling what is happening in North Carolina a “legislative power grab” is like calling cancer a “minor illness.” It is a shocking violation of democratic norms, and a frontal attack on the rule of law.
It is one more element in America’s current wholesale retreat from the principles that did make America great.