Western North Carolina’s legislators are leaving the Thanksgiving leftovers behind today (Sunday) in time to arrive in Raleigh for the 8 p.m. convening of the fourth special legislative session of the 2011. And the sessions just keep on coming. A fifth is already scheduled for February and a sixth in March — before the normal second-year “short session” of the General Assembly begins on May 16.
What is all this pressing business that keeps legislators’ cars on the road? Veto overrides have been hanging around in the wings, waiting to be invited in for a vote, and five have made it to the House’s unfinished business agenda for tonight, including reconsideration of the much-debated HB 351 (Restore Confidence in Government) that would require a photo ID for voters. (WNC’s Tim Moffitt, Republican of Buncombe County, was a co-sponsor of this bill. Other vetoed bills scheduled for reconsideration are listed below.)
There are also four concurrence issues awaiting this special session. The most controversial is SB 9 (No Discriminatory Purpose in Death Penalty), which would repeal North Carolina’s 2009 landmark legislation allowing a judge to remove an inmate from death row — reducing a death sentence to life — if the judge is convinced that racial bias played a role in seeking or imposing the death sentence. The use of statistical evidence of bias is permitted to support inmates’ claims. For an overview of the legal aspects of this legislation, click here for a May 2011 analysis in the American Bar Association Journal.
The proposed replacement legislation eliminates references to use of statistical evidence in three important instances: when death sentences are sought or imposed more frequently upon persons of one race than upon persons of another race; or more frequently as punishment for capital offenses against persons of one race than persons of another race; or when race is a significant factor for peremptory challenges in jury selection.
There have been no executions in the state for five years, as emphasized by the North Carolina Council of Churches, a statewide ecumenical organization. That organization joined with the Common Sense Foundation (a non-partisan public policy organization based in Durham) to produce a joint study of racial bias, “Race and the Death Penalty in NC,” that was released in 2001. One of the study’s conclusions was that from 1993 to 1997, odds for receiving a death sentence rose 3.5 times among defendants (of any race) accused of murdering a white person.
The wording of the SB 9 cites a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court case (McCleskey v. Kemp) as indicative that the current statute “allows statistical evidence of a type that the United States Supreme Court found to be insufficient.” According to a recent report in Raleigh’s News & Observer, the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys is lobbying for the proposed changes in the law.
Meanwhile, Buncombe County’s LeAnn Melton, president of the N.C. Association of Public Defenders (and public defender for the 28th Judicial District) sent this association letter arguing for retention of the original law, which is one of two such laws in the nation (Kentucky has an earlier version).
SB 9 has an interesting legislative history. It was introduced on Jan. 27, but a committee substitute to make synthetic cannabinoids illegal was adopted in early February. It subsequently passed second and third reading in the Senate and moved to the House, where it morphed back into a bill regarding the Racial Justice Act in June. It was postponed or withdrawn four times before passing in the House on June 16 and traveling from there to the Senate concurrence committee. It has been withdrawn from the calendar three times since then. Now there is a hearing on the bill scheduled for 2:30 p.m. tomorrow (Monday) in the Senate Judiciary I Committee. Members of the public wishing to speak must register with the committee assistant prior to the meeting. Contact the office of Sen. Peter Brunstetter, committee chair, for further information.
Other bills up for concurrence include:
SB 750 (Ominibus Transportation Act): Makes a number of changes in the current law, particularly regarding farm vehicles and non-interstate transportation. WNC co-sponsors are Republicans Tom Apodaca, Buncombe/Henderson counties; Jim Davis, Cherokee/Clay/Graham/Haywood/Jackson/Macon/Swain/Transylvania; Ralph Hise, Avery/Haywood/Madison/McDowell/Mitchell/Yancey.
HB 656 (Allow Sheriff’s’ Association in the Local Government Employment Retirement System).
HB 122 (An Act to Make Technical, Clarifying, and Administrative Changes to the Revenue Laws and Related Statutes).
Other potential overrides of Gov. Bev Perdue‘s vetoes include:
HB 7 (Community Colleges/Opt Out of Federal Loan Program): WNC co-sponsor Roger West, Republican, Cherokee/Clay/Graham/Macon counties.
HB 482 (Water Supply Lines/Water Violation Waivers)
SB 709 (Energy Jobs Act)
SB 727 (No Dues Checkoff for School Employees): WNC primary sponsor, Hise. WNC co-sponsor, Davis.
Nelda Holder, contributing editor