Cooper and NC Chamber of Commerce clash over Black appointees to judicial boards

Gov. Roy Cooper traded blows with the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce this weekend as he accused the business group of routinely opposing Black judicial nominees.

Cooper, a Democrat, sent a letter to the chamber on Friday claiming it was using its political influence to block Black appointees to several judicial and quasi-judicial boards.

“An organization that is designed to help our economy and North Carolina businesses should be strongly supporting the speedy confirmation of qualified Black nominees to positions of leadership in our state,” he said in the letter.

The chamber strongly denied Cooper’s claims in a letter sent Sunday.

“Having worked tirelessly and effectively to secure a promising future for the entirety of North Carolina’s business community – and always doing so without regard to identity – being wrongly and arrogantly lectured to by the state’s chief executive with outrageous claims of racism is enormously hurtful and dispiriting,” the letter, signed by the chamber’s president, Gary Salamido, said.

Cooper and chamber exchange accusations

While Cooper acknowledged that the chamber has no official power to approve or reject nominations, he made frequent mention of the group’s influence on the General Assembly, which votes to confirm Cooper’s appointees.

He claimed that the chamber “plays a pivotal role” in appointing members to the Business Court, the Industrial Commission and the Board of Review and said that, since 2017, the legislature has confirmed only 13 out of 33, or 39% of Black nominees to these boards. In comparison, the legislature confirmed 42 out of 70, or 60%, of white nominees to the boards, he said.

Cooper noted that six consecutive Black nominees to the Board of Review, which rules on cases regarding unemployment benefits, were rejected in 2021 and 2022.

“In each of these denials it was difficult, if not impossible, to get an explanation from General Assembly members or the chamber of substantive objections to the nominees,” he said.

In the chamber’s response, Salamido noted that the nominee who was ultimately appointed to the board was Black, and two out of three of the board’s current members are Black.

He also provided explanations for the six failed nominees Cooper mentioned, noting that three of them were attorneys who planned to keep their law practices active if appointed.

“Respectfully, the NC Chamber does not believe that service on a board that, for example in 2021 had 7,000 pending appeals, is a part-time job,” he wrote.

The other appointees, Salamido said, were known to have contentious relationships with legislative leadership, who would need to vote to confirm them. He noted that state law effectively nullifies any of the governor’s nominations to the board if the legislature does not act on them within 30 days.

“It would therefore probably be wise to invest time in discussing and vetting nominees prior to lobbing their names to Jones Street,” Salamido wrote.

As for the Business Court, which handles cases regarding corporate and commercial law, Cooper noted that all of the court’s six judges are white and the General Assembly did not consider confirming two consecutive Black women he nominated.

“Appointments to the Business Court are a priority of the chamber, and legislators and staff have repeatedly referred to the chamber’s refusal to endorse my qualified nominees as legislators’ motivation for not taking action,” he wrote.

Salamido acknowledged that the chamber opposed Cooper’s nomination of Tenisha Jacobs, a Black woman, in 2022.

“Notwithstanding our efforts to collaborate with you and your staff to nominate a more viable candidate, you ignored our concerns and submitted the nomination of an individual whose positions have conflicted directly with those taken by the business community in numerous matters over the years,” he said, attaching a 2022 letter sent to legislative leaders explaining the chamber’s opposition to Jacobs.

As for Cooper’s current nominee to the court, Jocelyn Mitnaul Mallette, Salamido wrote that she is “extraordinarily impressive” and said “we would humbly suggest that her nomination might have still been on a pathway to success had you engaged more constructively this past legislative session to secure it.”

Salamido also balked at the notion that the chamber routinely opposed Black nominees to the Industrial Commission, writing that two of Cooper’s last six nominations were Black and the chamber supported their confirmation.

Governor’s race

Near the end of Salamido’s letter, he mentioned that Cooper has not supported former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Michael Morgan’s run for governor, endorsing Attorney General Josh Stein instead.

“It is also well-chronicled that a long-serving and highly regarded Supreme Court Justice recently resigned to seek your party’s nomination for Governor,” Salamido wrote. “He also happens to be Black. Not only have you swiftly endorsed his opponent, who is not Black, you also appointed a non-minority to fill his open seat on the Supreme Court.”

In a separate letter sent to the chamber on Monday, Cooper did not acknowledge Salamido’s comments about Morgan, but said he found it noteworthy that the body did not comment on the low percentage of Black nominees confirmed by the legislature.

“The data is stark, and I feel confident that many of your members want the chamber to exercise its substantial influence in trying to fix it,” he said.