Electoral chickens come home to roost in North Carolina courts

Back in 2017, the North Carolina legislature repeatedly battled Governor Roy Cooper over the size and composition of the state’s courts. The Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill which would return the state to partisan judicial elections, a move criticized both by Democrat Cooper and by the state’s then-Chief Justice, Mark Martin (who favored a merit selection plan). Cooper vetoed the bill, but the legislature overrode the veto. The legislature and Governor also fought over the size of the state’s Court of Appeals. Later, a series of undignified fights over the fate of individual judges and judicial candidates cast the state’s third branch in a political light that it never would have sought for itself.

The legislature’s changes seem to have had some of their desired partisan effect for 2020. As noted last week, Republican candidates at first appeared to sweep the state’s judicial races. Now the highest profile race, for Chief Justice, appears headed for a recount, with current Chief Justice Cheri Beasley (a Democrat) and current Associate Justice Paul Newby (a Republican) separated by just a few thousand votes.

There are also some cascade effects. Newby’s choice to run for Chief Justice meant that his Associate Justice seat on the court became vacant, and that open seat was sought by two Court of Appeals Judges, Lucy Inman and Phil Berger Jr. Berger, the Republican, won the Supreme Court seat, and his now-open seat on the Court of Appeals will be filled by Governor Cooper. In the end, the seven-member Supreme Court will still have a Democratic majority — either four (if Newby wins the Chief Justiceship) or five (if Beasley retains it).

So at the end of the day, Republicans may make some inroads into the state judiciary, but at the cost of further politicizing the third branch. Courts will have to work harder than ever to build public trust, not because of the quality of their decisions, but because legislators have seen fit to brand them with a (D) or an (R).

Until partisans on both sides end their efforts to undermine the courts in this way, I don’t want to hear a damn thing about declining judicial legitimacy. It is a frontal assault on a co-equal branch of government, nothing less.

 

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