North Carolina State Government - The Legislative Branch


Old State House - 1840 to 1963

The Legislative Branch Today

Past General Assemblies

Historical Legislative Documents



The General Assembly is the oldest governmental body in North Carolina. According to tradition, a "legislative assembly of free holders" met for the first time circa 1666, however, no documentary proof exists of this meeting. Provisions for a representative assembly in the Proprietary Colony of Carolina can be traced to the Proprietors' Concessions and Agreements, adopted in 1665, which called for an unicameral body composed of governor, his council, and twelve delegates selected annually to sit as a legislature.

This system continued until 1668, when Albemarle County was divided into four precincts - Berkeley (Perquimans), Carteret (Currituck), Shaftsbury (Chowan), and Albemarle (Pasquotank) - which were each allowed five representatives. As new precincts were created and the population slowly increased the frontier moved westward, these new precincts were usually alloted two representatives, although some were allowed more than two.

The unicameral legislature only lasted a few years and circa 1672 a bicameral form of government was created. The governor and his council constituted the "upper house." The "lower house," the House of Burgesses, was composed of representatives elected from the colony's various precincts (counties). The House of Burgesses adopted its own rules of procedure and elected its own speaker and other officers. However, it could only meet when called into session by the governor and only at a location specified by him.

Beginning with the General Assembly of 1723, several of the larger, more important towns were allowed to elect their own representatives. Edenton was the first town granted this privelege, followed by the towns of Bath, New Bern, Wilmington, Brunswick, Halifax, Campbellton (now Fayetteville), Salisbury, Hillsborough, and Tarborough. By 1738, Albemarle County and Bath County were abolished and the precincts were then called counties.

Because the House of Burgesses held the power of the purse, including the payment of the governor's salary, regular meetings of the legislature were held at least once every two years and usually more often. Throughout the colonial period, the House of Burgesses' control over the colony's finances fueled controversy between the Royal Governors and the elected body. This power struggle had a profound effect on the structure of the new government established by the first State Constitution, adopted in December of 1776. The General Assembly became the primary organ of State government with control over all areas of government. The Constitution called for a Senate and a House of Commons to make up the General Assembly of the State, also known as the legislative branch.

The legislature wielded its constitutional authority to elect all executive and judicial branch officials. The State Senate and House of Commons conducted joint balloting to elect these officials. On many occasions, the elections for administrative and judicial positions consumed so much of the legislature's time that the government became quite ineffective at governing. This unwieldy process was changed in 1835, when a constitutional amendment altered the way the governor was elected. Instead of being elected by the General Assembly for a one-year term, the governor would henceforth be elected by the people for a two-year term.

Thirty-three years later, after the U.S. Civil War, the remaining state executive and judicial offices were finally elected by the people. The postwar Constitution of 1868 dramatically reduced the General Assembly's appointive powers over the other two branches of State government.

As mentioned above, the State Constitution of 1776 created a bicameral legislature with members of both houses elected by the people. The Senate had one representative from each county and one from each of the towns given representative status in the constitution. This continued until the 1835 Constitutional convention, when voters approved several changes to the legislative branch. At that time, membership in the Senate was set at fifty (50), with senators elected from districts. The State was divided into districts with the number of senators based on the population of each individual district. Membership in the House of Commons was set at 120, with representation based on the population of each county. The more-populous counties had more representatives, but each county was entitled to at least one representative. Representation in each house would be adjusted based on the federal census taken every ten years. The General Assembly retained the power to adjust districts and representation.

In 1868, a new Constitution was mandated by the Federal Government for each of the Confederate states, including North Carolina. North Carolina's bicameral legislature was retained, but the name of the "lower house" was changed to the House of Representatives (was House of Commons). The new Constitution eliminated the property qualification for holding office and opened up opportunities for less-wealthy North Carolinians to serve public office. The office of Lieutenant Governor was created, to be elected by the people, and to serve as President of the State Senate. He would also take office as governor if the incumbent governor could not continue for any reason. Senate members could also elect a President Pro Tempore from their ranks, and this person would chair Senate sessions in the absence of the Lieutenant Governor.

In 1966, the House of Representatives adopted district representation similar to the Senate's long-standing arrangement. Although the total number of representatives remained at 120, every county was no longer guaranteed a representative. Instead, the requirement to maintain rough equality of population size between districts resulted in counties with lower populations losing their resident representative. This switch to districts left nearly one-third of the State's counties with no resident legislator.

Prior to the designation of Raleigh as the permanent State Capital in 1792, the seat of government moved from town to town along with each new General Assembly, a pattern established under the Royal Governors of the colonial period. Halifax, Hillsborough, Fayetteville, New Bern, Smithfield, and Tarborough all served as the seat of government between 1776 and 1794. The General Assembly of 1794-1795 was the first legislative session to meet in Raleigh.

The buildings used as meeting places for the colonial and early State General Assemblies varied as much as their locations. If the structure was large enough to hold the legislators, it was pressed into use. Court houses, schools, and even local residences served as legislative buildings. Tryon Palace in New Bern was North Carolina's first Capitol Building. Completed in 1771, the palace was abandoned during the Revolution because of exposure to attack. When Raleigh became the permanent State Capital, the General Assembly approved the construction of a simple two-story brick State House. This structure, completed in 1796, served as the General Assembly's home until a fired gutted it in 1831. The legislature approved a new Capitol Building and construction was completed in 1840. The first session to convene in this building opened on November 16, 1840. Construction of the current legislative building started in 1961, and the first session held in the present building convened on February 6, 1963.

The structure of State government established by the 1868 Constitution remained essentially unchanged with the adoption of the State's third Constitution of 1971. As one of the three branches of government established by the Constitution, the legislative branch is equal with, but independent of, the executive branch and the judicial branch. It is composed of the General Assembly and its administrative support units. The current North Carolina Constitution gives the General Assembly legislative, or law making, power for the entire state. This means, in the words ot the State's Supreme Court, that the legislature has "the authority to make or enact laws; to establish rules and regulations governing the conduct of the people, their rights, duties, and procedures; and, to prescribe the consequences of certain activities."

Legislators on both the Senate and House of Representatives stand for election every two years, in even-numberd years. Members of both houses are drawn from districts established by law. Qualifications for election differ slightly for each house. For election to either house, a person must reside in the district he/she wants to represent for at least one year prior to the election. Candidates must be registered to vote in North Carolina. Senate candidates must be at least 25 years old on the date of the election and a resident of the State for two years immediately preceding the election. House candidates must be at least 21 years old on the date of the election in addition to the previously-stated qualifications.

A Constitutional Amendment approved by voters in 1982 set the first day of January, following the November general election, as the date legislators officially take office. Prior to the amendment, legislators took office immediately following the November elections.

Each house of the legislature elects a principal clerk; the Senate also elects a reading clerk and a sergeant-at-arms. These positions are appointed in the House of Representatives. The President of the Senate (Lieutenant Governor) presides over its sessions. A President Pro Tempore, elected by senators from among their ranks, presides over the Senate in the absence of the Lieutenant Governor. The Speaker of the House of Representatives is elected by the representatives among their ranks. Other officers in each hosue are elected either by the membership as a whole, or by the members of each political party.

Much of the General Assembly's legislative work occurs through standing committees. Soon after the start of each legislative session, the leadership in each house forms standing committees, appointing members. Since 1989, the President Pro Tempore has appointed Senate committees, a duty earlier given to the President of the Senate. The Speaker of the House of Representatives appoints committees in that chamber. These leaders often make committee assignments based on legislators' interests and expertise.

The Legislative Services Commission manages the General Assembly's administrative staff, called the Legislative Services Office. The President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives alternate chairmanship of the Legislative Services Commission on a yearly basis and each appoints seven members from the respective house to serve on the commission.

Prior to 1957, the NC General Assembly convened in January at a time fixed by the NC Constitution. From 1957 to 1967, sessions convened in February at a time fixed by the NC Constitution. The 1969 NC General Assembly was the first to convene on a date fixed by law after elimination of the constitutionally-fixed date. The NC General Assembly now convenes on the third Wednesday after the second Monday in January after the November election. 

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