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Governor's legal counsel rips AG Cooper over comments

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Bob Stephens, the governor's chief legal counsel, said that hiring other attorneys was necessary because of AG Roy Cooper's comments about the election reform law. Bob Stephens, the governor's chief legal counsel, said that hiring other attorneys was necessary because of AG Roy Cooper's comments about the election reform law.
RALEIGH, N.C. -

The governor's chief legal counsel had harsh words for the state's Attorney General on Tuesday, saying critical comments Roy Cooper made about the election reform bill were the reason the state needed to hire outside counsel to defend a federal lawsuit.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday that the Department of Justice was suing the state of North Carolina over the election reform bill passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory.

Cooper had previously urged McCrory not to sign the bill, saying it was poor policy and would lead to costly litigation.

On Monday, the offices of McCrory and General Assembly leaders Phil Berger and Thom Tillis announced they hired outside counsel to defend the state. That immediately raised questions about cost, since fees for the attorneys will be expensive and the state could have relied solely on the Attorney General's office.

But Bob Stephens, the governor's chief legal counsel, said Tuesday that hiring other attorneys was necessary because of Cooper's critical comments.

"Now I look at that and I ask myself, 'How can somebody say something like that and then turn around and represent the people of North Carolina in this litigation?'" Stephens said. "And I have concluded I don't think he can. And for that reason we have hired outside counsel."

Stephens noted there have been questions about the cost of the outside attorneys.

"The responsibility for that, in my opinion, falls squarely at the feet of the attorney general," Stephens said. Stephens said he was concerned about whether a judge would have in the back of his mind that the state's Attorney General was opposed to the law.

"How is that going to play in any decision-making process?" Stephens said.

Asked specifically about South Carolina attorney Butch Bowers, who will represent the governor's office, Stephens said, "We're very fortunate to get Butch Bowers in this case. Butch Bowers has been through this battle."

Stephens said Bowers represented South Carolina in a similar litigation in 2012.

Cooper told WNCN Tuesday morning, before Stephens' news conference, that hiring additional attorneys was not needed.

"I think it's unnecessary to hire additional attorneys, but they have the authority to do that under the law," Cooper said.

"Unfortunately, I think it just ends up costing more money. We have very professional staffing and they are very experienced in this type of law, and they will do a good job in defending the state."

Cooper said he hopes the General Assembly will reconsider the law when it meets again next year.

"Clearly there were a lot of things put in the law in the end that affect people and their ability to register and vote and I hope they will relook at this," Cooper said.

North Carolina's new law cuts early voting by a week, ends same-day voter registration and includes a stringent photo ID requirement. The measure also eliminated a popular high school civics program that encouraged students to register to vote in advance of their 18th birthdays.

McCrory argued he recently saw video of President Barack Obama voting in Chicago and presenting an ID. His office also sent out a news release with the video.

"I believe if showing a voter ID is good enough and fair enough for our own president in Illinois, then it's good enough for the people of North Carolina," McCrory said.

North Carolina is among at least five Southern states adopting stricter voter ID and other election laws. The Justice Department on Aug. 22 sued Texas over the state's voter ID law and is seeking to intervene in a lawsuit over redistricting laws in Texas that minority groups consider discriminatory.

Republican lawmakers in southern states insist the new measures are needed to prevent voter fraud, though such crimes are infrequent.

Democrats and civil rights groups argue the tough new laws are intended to make voting more difficult for minorities and students, voting groups that lean toward Democrats, in states with legacies of poll taxes and literacy tests.

The Justice Department will ask a federal judge to place the four provisions in North Carolina's new law under federal scrutiny for an indeterminate period - a process known as pre-clearance. However, the provision of the Voting Rights Act that the Justice Department is invoking may be a difficult tool for the Obama administration to use.

A handful of jurisdictions have been subjected to pre-clearance, or advance approval, of election changes through the Civil Rights Act provision it is relying on, but a court first must find that a state or local government engaged in intentional discrimination under the Constitution's 14th or 15th amendments, or the jurisdiction has to admit to discrimination. Unlike other parts of the voting law, the discriminatory effect of an action is not enough to trigger court review.

Nowhere is the debate over voting rights is more heated than in Florida, where the chaotic recount in the disputed 2000 presidential race took place. 

Florida election officials are set to resume an effort to remove noncitizens from the state's voting rolls. A purge last year ended in embarrassment after hundreds of American citizens, most of whom were black or Hispanic, were asked to prove their citizenship or risk losing their right to vote.

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