The latest session of the North Carolina General Assembly ended last week. This year, the ACLU of North Carolina monitored and advocated for or against more than 160 bills concerning civil rights and civil liberties. Here is a high-level look at what passed and what didn’t, and what the ACLU-NC and our partners were able to accomplish this session to protect and advance the rights of all North Carolinians.
LGBTQ Equality: For more than a year, the ACLU-NC and our partners worked tirelessly for a full and clean repeal of House Bill 2, the sweeping anti-LGBT law passed in March 2016. But after a series of backroom negotiations between Governor Roy Cooper, Senate Leader Phil Berger, and House Speaker Tim Moore, the legislature, without proper vetting or public input, rushed through a “fake repeal,” HB142, in one day that replaced HB2 but keeps many of its harmful parts in place. For example, the new law prevents local governments from passing policies that protect people—LGBT people or anyone else—from discrimination in their jobs or in places of public accommodation (hotels and restaurants) until 2020. HB142 goes even further and says no local government can ever protect transgender people’s access to the appropriate restroom without permission from the General Assembly. The ACLU and Lambda Legal filed a federal lawsuit that challenged HB2 on behalf of LGBT North Carolinians days after the law went into effect, and we are planning to amend that lawsuit to challenge HB142 as LGBT people continue to be treated as second-class citizens in our state.
Immigrants’ Rights: The ACLU-NC and our coalition partners helped block several proposals that attacked immigrants living and working in our communities. The most prominent anti-immigrant bill this session was Senate Bill 145, which would have directed highway patrol officers to enforce federal immigration laws, sought to punish local governments who enacted their own policies related to immigration, and curtailed the autonomy of any University of North Carolina institution that limits its role in the enforcement of federal immigration laws. Thanks to the hard work of Latinx community activists, ACLU-NC policy staff, and our partners, neither this bill nor any of the other anti-immigrant bills introduced became law.
Reproductive Freedom: Three major anti-abortion bills were introduced this session, but for the first time since 2011, no new abortion restrictions became law. However, the final budget does include more than $1.4 million for anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers” that have been found to provide medically inaccurate information to patients.
We also worked with a group of lawmakers to introduce the Whole Woman’s Health Act, HB563, which would enshrine the fundamental right to obtain an abortion into state law and repeal state restrictions that impede access to abortion. Unfortunately, this bill did not advance, but we will continue to build support for the Whole Woman’s Health Act in the years to come.
Criminal Justice and Policing Reform: First, the good news. After more than a decade of hard work, this session advocates, including ACLU-NC, were finally able to help pass legislation to “raise the age” of juvenile jurisdiction. Until this year, North Carolina was the last state in the country to treat all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system, regardless of the crime. Beginning in December 2019, North Carolina will now raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18 for those charged with misdemeanors and some low-level felonies, redirecting these teens to the juvenile justice system where they will receive more rehabilitative support in a safer environment among their peers. We are proud of this big win and the countless people who helped make it happen – including you, our members and supporters!
Unfortunately, the criminal justice news wasn’t all good this session. The budget included an extremely harmful provision that could result in more North Carolinians being kept in jail because they can’t afford to pay their court costs. Under previous law, defendants who were unable to pay court costs and fines could ask a judge to waive their fees, and the judges had the power to grant this right. Under the new rule, judges will no longer be able to make that decision on their own without first providing 15 days' notice for a hearing at which "all government entities affected" would have an opportunity to be heard. This new requirement will clog up the court system and make it very difficult for judges to provide relief for poor people who simply do not have the money to pay hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars in fees. More North Carolinians will be kept in jail for offenses as minor as an unpaid parking ticket simply because they cannot afford to pay their court costs, and it's almost certain that the state will spend more money trying to collect these fees than it will ever recover.
Many other bills that would have helped reform our criminal justice system unfortunately stalled this session, including bills to expand public access to police body camera footage and to increase the powers of Citizen Review Boards. We will continue to push for these critical reforms going forward.
Free Speech: Among our must substantial wins this session, we successfully defeated HB249, the so-called “Economic Terrorism” bill that would have chilled First Amendment rights. HB249 would have increased penalties for obstructing traffic and sidewalks during a protest and would have made protestors liable for the policing costs of an entire protest if that protest was deemed to be unlawful. More than 1,800 ACLU-NC members and supporters contacted committee members in the 24-hours before the bill was heard. Our arguments were used by several legislators during the debate, and the bill was defeated by a single vote.
HB527, the “Campus Free Speech” bill, passed both the House and the Senate and is currently awaiting the Governor’s signature. The ACLU-NC worked with the bill authors to make sure the policy respects the First Amendment rights of all students. The final version is much improved over the bill that was originally introduced, and we will carefully watch the implementation of these policies to ensure that the constitutionally protected free speech rights of students, including counter protesters, continue to be protected on college campuses in our state.