- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 24, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Faced with new and protracted lawsuits and keeping reservations about the Democratic attorney general, North Carolina Republican legislators have set aside $8 million to keep defending laws they’ve passed.

The GOP-led General Assembly passed a budget this fall giving it $4 million a year through mid-2017 to “pay for current and pending litigation costs,” according to a budget document.

The direct appropriation marks a new phase in Republican efforts to preserve approved legislation with help from outside lawyers. Last year, the legislature shifted $300,000 from Attorney General Roy Cooper’s department to supplement the General Assembly’s litigation reserve.

The appropriation is designed to ensure “that the will of the people’s representatives prevail,” said senior budget-writer Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake.

Outside legal costs expensed to the General Assembly since July 2014 to defend state laws are well over $3 million, according to invoices obtained by The Associated Press. Most expenses originate from one law firm helping defend a 2013 elections overhaul law that scaled back early voting and requires photo identification to vote.

The amount doesn’t include expenses incurred by the same Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart firm also hired by Republican legislative leaders in 2011 for advice in drawing legislative and congressional districts and to help defend them. Three redistricting lawsuits are ongoing, including one filed last summer. That firm’s lawyers defend the maps with an attorney from Cooper’s office.

More lawsuits could be ahead. Civil rights groups have said they’re prepared to challenge a new law allowing magistrates and court clerks to decline to marry same-sex couples based on religious objections.

A 2013 law lets the House speaker and Senate leader defend state laws in court, even if Cooper’s office declines. The law came about in part because Republicans said they didn’t trust Cooper, a Democrat, to defend them robustly.

Cooper is running for governor next year to try to unseat Republican Pat McCrory. McCrory’s office also hired outside counsel for the elections law litigation.

“Cooper has been reluctant in some cases to defend some of the legislation that we’ve passed, and it’s created a situation where we’ve had to hire private counsel to represent us,” said Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, co-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Cooper’s bid for governor, Brown added, “changed the dynamics as far as representation.”

Noelle Talley, a Cooper spokeswoman, disagreed. She listed at least 15 matters in which Department of Justice attorneys defended legislation, and they have done so diligently, she said. Cooper has said his personal opinions wouldn’t halt his office’s robust defense of state law.

“Our office hasn’t requested that the General Assembly hire any of the private lawyers they’ve been paying, and we think it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars to pay outside lawyers to do the work we’re already doing,” Talley said in a statement.

Cooper had urged McCrory to veto the elections overhaul law in 2013. He also announced support for gay marriage when the state’s constitutional amendment banning such marriages was challenged. Cooper said he would no longer defend North Carolina’s amendment last year when a similar Virginia amendment was struck down.

Outside legal bills since summer 2014 from at least seven lawsuits totaled $3.1 million, according to invoices the AP received from the legislature through a public records request. That compares with $1.2 million for the previous year for similar invoices. Redistricting legal invoices requested from the legislature’s financial office weren’t yet available Tuesday.

Close to $2.9 million of those expenses over the past year have been incurred by Ogletree Deakins to defend the elections overhaul law against four federal and state lawsuits. Several invoices hadn’t been paid as of last week.

More than $197,000 was charged by the Nelson Mullins law firm to represent Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger in lawsuits challenging a law providing taxpayer money for low-income children to attend private K-12 schools. The state Supreme Court upheld the “Opportunity Scholarships” in July.

Invoices show another $36,000 paid to an Elon University law school professor to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review a case about a 2011 law creating a state “Choose Life” license plate. The nation’s justices in June told the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider its ruling in light of a Texas case.

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