North Carolina Court: Commissioner Rules Until Successor Sworn In

In a case over an Industrial Commission’s workers’ compensation award, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled recently that appointed government officials retain their jobs until their successors are sworn in.

The high court overruled an appeals court, which had vacated the February 2007 decision to give Robert Baxter total disability benefits. The Industrial Commission had voted 3-2 to grant Baxter’s claim.

The appeals court had agreed with the self-insured company, Danny Nicholson, Inc., that the decision granting benefits should be voided because the 3-2 vote of the Industrial Commission included a vote in favor by one member, Thomas Bolch, whose replacement had been recently announced by then-Gov. Mike Easley. His replacement had not yet been sworn in.

The trucking firm argued that the workers’ compensation award was void as a matter of law because Bolch no longer held his office, and the panel thus comprised only two members, who split their votes.

However, the Supreme Court, in a decision in which all seven justices joined, concluded otherwise. In the opinion by Justice Robin Hudson, the court said that the workers’ compensation decision was valid because “the authority of an appointed officer continues until the date on which his successor takes the oath of the office in question and thereby becomes duly qualified to begin performing the duties of that office.”

The court said its decision conforms with the state’s long-standing public policy against vacancies in both elected and appointed offices.

“We decline to approve an interpretation that would result in a vacancy and cessation of the work of an appointed officer immediately upon the announcement of a successor. Voiding actions taken by a holdover official during the time between the announcement of a successor and that successor’s swearing-in could promote disruption and delay completion of important work already performed on the State’s behalf,” the decision says.

The Industrial Commission signed its opinion on Baxter on Feb. 2, 2007. On that same date, Gov. Easley sent a letter to Bolch informing him that his service was at an end and that his successor, Danny Lee McDonald, had been appointed. Easley sent another letter, also dated Feb. 2, to McDonald, notifying him that his appointment was “effective immediately.” However, McDonald did not take the oath of office until Feb. 9.

The court noted that, according to an affidavit from a member of the Governor’s staff, Bolch was authorized to hold over in his position until the date of the swearing in of McDonald and one of the reasons given was so that the Industrial Commission would have time to issue and file any decisions, such as the Baxter case, which had already been heard on oral argument by panels involving Bolch but which had not been yet issued in a formal written opinion.