State House oversteps boundaries with “big brother” reporting bill

April 11, 2023 6:00 am

House Bill 361 targets the activities of a private, non-profit law firm known as Disability Rights North Carolina (DRNC). (Photo: Clayton Henkel)

The North Carolina General Assembly is an enormously important and powerful institution. Its 170 members are elected to represent and act on behalf of the state’s 10 million-plus residents in numerous ways – enacting and enforcing the state’s civil and criminal laws, raising and appropriating revenue, and appointing all manner of state and local public officials.

It’s also, as state legislatures go, one of the nation’s strongest. North Carolina was the last state in the nation to give its governor the power to veto bills (some important ones are still excluded), and it greatly limits local government authority, as well.

Now add to all this the fact that gerrymandered districts assure that many members never face a close election and that, in recent decades, the General Assembly has elevated leaders who’ve stayed in office and consolidated power over extended periods, and it comes as little surprise that some lawmakers act as if their power is virtually unfettered.

Just because some legislators see themselves in this exalted state, however, doesn’t make it right or true. For a classic case of how this distorted perception can lead to destructive mischief and even a frightening overstepping of boundaries, check out a piece of legislation that zoomed through the state House last week.

House Bill 361 is a measure that might seem innocuous at first blush: It merely calls for some reports to be filed periodically with the General Assembly. But upon further review, it’s quickly revealed to be a dangerous and potentially precedent-setting example of elected leaders overstepping their authority and inserting themselves into areas in which they have no right to meddle.

The bill targets the activities of a private, non-profit law firm known as Disability Rights North Carolina (DRNC). It specifies that DRNC is to submit four different reports – the word used is “shall” – to an array of legislative committees every year. The reports are to document DRNC’s work in several areas – some of it in great detail.

While there is no penalty specified in the measure for noncompliance with the reporting requirements, it’s hard to imagine that the legislative sponsors will not seek somehow to compel such action if the bill becomes law – presumably by seeking a court order to force DRNC to act.

Image: Courtesy DRNC

And this is a potentially huge problem.

It’s true that DRNC started out as a unit of state government and receives federal funding as the state’s designated “Protection and Advocacy agency” (click here to read more). But it’s also the case that the organization is a wholly private 501(c)(3) nonprofit and has been for more than 15 years. It receives no state appropriations.

As such, the state of North Carolina has no more business demanding that it report the details of its work to the legislature than it would in issuing such a directive to any other nonprofit that receives zero state funds – be it a church, a civil rights organization, a local chamber of commerce, a garden club, or any other private corporation.

State law rightfully enables the Secretary of State to collect periodic filings from corporations – both for-profit and nonprofit – to verify and confirm their status, but the reporting required by the proposed legislation is an entirely different kettle of fish.

Now add to this the obvious fact that DRNC and its work are already quite well-known to the state. Since its attorneys have long and heroically advocated with great success on behalf of some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens (e.g., institutionalized people with mental disabilities and people incarcerated in state prisons), it’s impossible to see the proposed legislation as anything other than an effort to send a message of intimidation to a group whose work has frequently exposed official wrongdoing and, in many instances, cost the state a lot of money.

For a classic example of DRNC’s work see NC Newsline investigative reporter Kelan Lyons’ recent story, “A miscarriage of justice: A life in prison.”

Indeed, during the brief House floor debate on the bill, one of the sponsors admitted being motivated by DRNC’s past successful actions — including litigation that targeted segregated sheltered workshops for people with developmental disabilities and the Samantha R lawsuit, which seeks to provide housing and community services to many of the same people.

So, if this bill becomes law, what’s next?

  • A command to the groups that participated in the successful Leandro education funding lawsuit that they “report” to legislators on their activities?
  • How about a bill requiring detailed reporting from journalism organizations that expose government malfeasance?
  • Reporting demands for outspoken citizens?

Such demands smack of un-American authoritarian governments in which citizens are accountable to the high government officials, rather than the other way around.

In short, the General Assembly is not and should not be our state’s Big Brother. Powerful as it is, there are limits to its authority – and a very important one is that, absent a showing of wrongdoing, it cannot (and should never be allowed to) meddle in, micromanage the activities, and make burdensome reporting demands of private organizations not funded with state dollars.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors and voices regular commentaries, and hosts the 'News & Views' weekly radio show/podcast.