Arguments in a lawsuit challenging Governor Cooper’s implementation of emergency powers without concurrence from the NC Council of State were presented in North Carolina Business Court Tuesday. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest brought the suit, arguing state law requires the governor to get council of state approval before shutting down sections of the state economy, but the governor’s representative disputes this reading of the law. Senior Judge James Gale has indicated he will decide the case as quickly as possible.
Governor Cooper announced that North Carolina will remain in Phase 2 of the state’s COVID-19-related reopening plan for at least five more weeks. Bars and gyms will remain closed and other non-essential businesses will continue to operate at the currently reduced capacity. Cooper and DHHS chief Mandy Cohen report infection rates are beginning to stabilize but remain high, and the reopening of schools in combination with the fact that over 50% of the state’s residents are at high risk due to age and/or chronic conditions make it necessary to keep Phase 2 safety measures in place.
The UNC Chapel Hill administration faced criticism for failing to publicly reveal Orange County health department recommendations to hold online-only classes and severely limit on-campus housing. Dr. Mimi Chapman, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, called the decision to not share the health department recommendations “a serious breach of trust.” She noted that returning students are not following mask and social distancing, behaviors that the university has said would lead to a revision of its reopening plan. UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz indicated the decision not to follow the county recommendations was made by the UNC System leaders, who have directed all system chancellors to follow orders but not recommendations from public health officials. Unions and groups representing UNC system personnel are urging county health directors in college communities to order universities to close for normal business during the COVID-19 pandemic “until such time as students, faculty and staff can return safely to their work.”
A federal court decision announced Tuesday leaves certain state voting requirements unchanged but modifies others. The voter registration period will not be extended and the one-witness requirement for absentee ballots will remain in place. However, election officials will not be permitted to reject an absentee ballot for superficial errors, and the order also blocks a number of rules that would make it harder for nursing home residents to vote. Although this order solidifies some voting rules, there are at least nine additional lawsuits targeting aspects of the state’s voting laws. In his 188-page decision, U.S. District Judge William Osteen warned that North Carolina must “take its election response to the coronavirus pandemic seriously” in order to assure voters fundamental voting rights because plaintiffs “raised genuine issues of concerns” beyond those addressed by his order.
UNC-Chapel Hill will ask the US Supreme Court to review a NC Supreme Court decision ordering the University to make available to the public the names of students sanctioned for sexual misconduct. The records at issue are part of any case filed under the University’s Equal Opportunity Compliance Title IX provisions, rather than being reported to law enforcement agencies, and are kept confidential. News media had sued the University in 2016 after being denied the records as a part of a public records request. University officials fear the loss of confidentiality will discourage assault survivors and witnesses from taking advantage of the Title IX provision. Advocates for releasing the records argue that it will lead to more transparency about the extent of sexual assault on campus.
The State Board of Education will ask the NC General Assembly to adjust state law so that school districts will not lose funding if public school enrollment numbers fall this year. The Board is concerned that COVID-19 may lead parents to seek other options for their children. Funding for public schools is determined by enrollment numbers, and losing funding could impact efforts to implement alternatives to in-person classes during the health crisis as well as to prepare for when these classes resume. School officials expressed concern that a reduction in funding would also disproportionately impact low-wealth communities.