In this series of posts examining a recent challenge to North Carolina’s expansion of its Right to Farm Act, Rural Empowerment Ass’n for Cmty. Help v. State, No. 19-CVS-008198 (N.C. Super. Ct. filed June 19, 2019) (detailed here), today’s post considers the plaintiffs’ invocation of the relatively unknown, but not un-litigated, prohibition on “local and special laws” in the N.C. Constitution. N.C. Const. art. II, § 24. “The General Assembly shall not enact any local, private, or special act or resolution . . . [r]elating to health, sanitation, and the abatement of nuisances.” Id. Plaintiffs in the REACH complaint argue that the Act’s amendments constitute a “special law” because they were adopted “in response to a specific case and to existing circumstances at the time of their passage and designed to protect a special class or favored few.” Complaint at 37, Rural Empowerment Ass’n for Cmty. Help, No. 19-CVS-008198.
North Carolina courts have not yet analyzed whether a limit on punitive damages constitutes a “special law.” Nor is it clear how the Right to Farm Act amendments even relate to “issues of health, sanitation, and the abatement of nuisances,” at least as far as North Carolina courts have construed those terms. The Supreme Court of North Carolina has stated that courts must look to “whether, in light of its stated purpose and practical effect, the legislation has a material, but not exclusive or predominant, connection to issues involving health, sanitation, and the abatement of nuisances.” City of Asheville v. State, 369 N.C. 80, 103, 794 S.E.2d 759, 776 (2016).
There is also little guidance on how North Carolina courts interpret the meaning of a “special” act or resolution. Most of North Carolina’s jurisprudence has arisen on the “local” front, but North Carolina courts have treated the terms “local” and “special” seemingly interchangeably at times. When North Carolina courts have attempted to distinguish between “local laws” and “general laws,” they have applied a “reasonable classification” test, which distinguishes between local laws, which “discriminate between different localities without any real, proper, or reasonable basis or necessity,” and general laws, which “appl[y] to and operate uniformly on all the members of any class of persons, places or things requiring legislation peculiar to itself in matters covered by the law.” City of Asheville, 369 N.C. at 91, 794 S.E.2d at 768–69. Assumedly, the state’s courts would apply an analogous test (with altered language) to the question of what constitutes a special law with one possible conclusion being that “[a] law which applies generally to a particular class of cases is not a local or special law.” See Reed v. Howerton Eng’g Co., 188 N.C. 39, 123 S.E. 479, 481 (1924).
How the court treats this legal theory will be telling in how state legislatures can constitutionally encourage the growth of agricultural industries in their state. If the very fact that a law allegedly benefits a specific individual or entity makes it an unconstitutional special law, the state’s government would likely be severely constrained in attracting entrepreneurs to the state or maintaining the state’s growing economy. For example, the General Assembly has passed a law that allows business owners to sue for harm to their business if an individual fraudulently gains employment there in order to engage in an undercover investigation, which then goes public. The North Carolina Property Protection Act, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 99A-1 (2018). Would such a law, although textually aimed at generally protecting property rights across industries, be a special law because it also benefited the state’s agricultural operations, specifically the poultry industry? State lawmakers would have to ensure that no law benefited any entity over the other, even tangentially, a seemingly absurd proposition. Hopefully the court will clarify exactly what constitutes a “special law” and if the term has a meaning distinguishable from “local.”
Sean Placey is a summer associate in the firm’s Greensboro office.