Gov. Pat McCrory speaks at the press conference in September 2014 held at the Asheville Regional Airport, about his 25-year transportation plan. Alicia Funderburk/Carolina Public Press

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RALEIGH — Monday saw a major escalation of the showdown between federal and state officials over HB2, with three lawsuits filed over the span of six hours and dueling press events held by Gov. Pat McCrory, who staunchly defended the law, and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who called it “state-sponsored discrimination.”

The governor filed first in a suit that marks his official reply to a Monday deadline set last week by the U.S. Department of Justice for a response to its finding that the law violates the federal Civil Rights Act.

In his lawsuit, the governor argues that the move by the Justice Department represents a major intrusion by the federal government. McCrory is requesting a federal court ruling on the constitutionality of the state law, which includes provisions restricting individuals to multiple-occupancy public restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their birth gender.

“The Department’s position is a baseless and blatant overreach,” the lawsuit states. “This is an attempt to unilaterally rewrite long-established federal civil rights laws in a manner that is wholly inconsistent with the intent of Congress and disregards decades of statutory interpretation by the Courts.”

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The next lawsuit, announced an hour later, was a similar request for a ruling filed by attorneys for Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore. In a joint statement, Berger and Moore said the DoJ had used a “radical reinterpretation” of federal discrimination protections.

At 3:30 p.m., the Justice Department announced its suit followed by a statement by Lynch, a Durham native, comparing the law to discriminatory Jim Crow-era laws on public accommodations.

Lynch said DoJ could curtail distribution of more than $1 billion in federal funding to the state Department of Public Safety and the University of North Carolina, which are also named in the lawsuit.

“You’ve been told that this law protects vulnerable populations from harm — but that just is not the case,” Lynch said, speaking directly to residents of her home state.

“Instead, what this law does is inflict further indignity on a population that has already suffered far more than its fair share. This law provides no benefit to society – all it does is harm innocent Americans.”

A fourth lawsuit or legal response is possible. McCrory’s chief counsel, Bob Stephens, said Monday that the UNC Board of Governors could bring an action in response to DoJ’s assertion that HB2 puts the system in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The Board of Governors has scheduled an emergency meeting for 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to receive a closed-session legal briefing on the lawsuits.

The location of the filings indicate that both sides are looking for a favorable venue for the initial stages.

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The governor and legislative leaders filed their actions in the Eastern District of the Federal Court of Appeals, where a majority of the justices are Republican appointees. The Justice Department filed its complaint in Middle District, where the majority are Democratic appointees.

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Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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