N.C. Supreme Court Justice Patricia A. Timmons-Goodson, the first and only female African-American to serve on the state’s highest court, is resigning her position.
The departure sets up a major appointment to the seven-member court for outgoing Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat who will leave office after next month.
A spokeswoman for Perdue said late Wednesday the governor intends to make the choice, even if it means disbanding an independent commission Perdue created last year to screen and recommend appointees to the courts, including the Supreme Court. She formed the commission to “take politics out of appointing judges.”
Under an executive order issued by Perdue in April 2011, the commission is supposed to gather information, evaluate applicants and recommend three people for a judicial opening – and Perdue was bound to choose one of those selections. The process is generally expected to take more than six weeks, though the order says Perdue may set a shorter timeframe.
Perdue communications director Chris Mackey and one of the judicial commission’s members, Burley Mitchell, a former state Supreme Court chief justice, said Wednesday Perdue could rescind her own order to move along the process.
They said the timing points to Perdue making a direct appointment, though no final decisions have been made.
“She is looking at all her options,” Mackey said.
Mackey affirmed that Perdue will not leave the decision to her Republican successor, Pat McCrory, whose term begins on Jan. 1 under the state constitution. McCrory’s swearing-in ceremony is scheduled for Jan. 5.
Republicans issued sharp words for Perdue. Senate leader Phil Berger, a leading Republican, said Perdue should follow her own rules, saying any failure to do that on such a prominent choice would be “one more example of the rank hypocrisy soiling her legacy.” He suggested the decision should be left to McCrory.
“Gov. Perdue has not earned, nor does she have, the state’s trust to make this type of decision,” Berger said.
The jockeying highlights the importance of the position on the politically divided high court, especially as a lawsuit challenging how Republicans drew legislative district boundaries winds through the state courts. The state Supreme Court is expected to ultimately decide the redistricting issue.
One of the court’s seats was up for election this year, and millions were spent to influence the outcome as voters re-elected Republican Paul Newby.
While the court is officially nonpartisan, the political parties have taken a strong interest in its makeup, which is now 4-3 in favor of Republicans.
Timmons-Goodson is a Democrat who was appointed to the court by former Gov. Mike Easley in early 2006. She then won election that November with 58 percent of the vote.
Her eight-year term was to run through 2014.
But Timmons-Goodson, 58, notified court colleagues and Perdue in the past week that she would be stepping down.
She wrote to Perdue on Nov. 21, describing her decision as a retirement that would be effective Dec. 17.
“(T)he time has come for me to depart,” she wrote.
Neither Timmons-Goodson nor Perdue’s office had publicly disclosed the decision until it was reported online Wednesday by The News & Observer.
Timmons-Goodson then issued a statement that said, “Understanding there is a time and season for all things, I have concluded that the time has come for me to leave the Court.”
She made no mention of future plans. She was unavailable for comment, according to the public relations firm that issued her statement.
Timmons-Goodson’s statement said she was thankful for her time on the court.
“Service on the Supreme Court is a privilege that has been granted to fewer than 100 citizens in the history of this state, and I thank the people of North Carolina for the honor of serving them as an Associate Justice,” she said.
Perdue, in a statement, said Timmons-Goodson “will be sorely missed but her legacy will live on.”
“I am proud to count her as a friend and, on behalf of all North Carolinians, I thank her for the invaluable contribution she has made to our great state.”
Timmons-Goodson joined the Supreme Court after serving as a state judge for more than two decades.
She was an elected District Court judge in Fayetteville from 1984 to 1997. In 1997, Gov. Jim Hunt appointed her to the state Court of Appeals. She retired from that position in 2005.
It was early in 2006 that Easley persuaded her to return to the bench as the first black female on the Supreme Court and its fifth woman.
By then, Timmons-Goodson had other “firsts” after her name: She was the first black woman to serve as a judge in Cumberland County; she was the first black woman elected to any state appellate court; and in 2002, she served on the first three-judge panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals to be made up of all black women.
“She is a trailblazer,” Easley said when appointing her to the Supreme Court. “She is a teacher and a role model.”
Timmons-Goodson said at the time she thought her service to the state had been completed.
But, she said then, “Governor Easley offered what my family and I viewed as the opportunity of a lifetime. My husband, sons and I could not decline.”
She is married to a Fayetteville orthodontist.
Timmons-Goodson issued several dissents over the years to opinions by the court majority.
Among them were disagreements with rulings that said the state’s Medical Board cannot prevent doctors from participating in executions, that restored some gun rights for felons, and one in 2010 that said dozens of inmates sentenced to life in prison in the 1970s could not be freed.
Her name has surfaced in Washington political circles as a possible choice by President Barack Obama to a federal judgeship. There is currently one federal judicial vacancy in the Eastern District of North Carolina, a post that has been unfilled since early 2006.
News researcher David Raynor, and staff writers Craig Jarvis and Anne Blythe contributed to this report.