Perdue's judicial jockeys

Filling a pending vacancy on the state Supreme Court is the sitting governor’s prerogative.

November 29, 2012 

The least shocking revelation in state government this week is that, when it comes to membership on the N.C. Supreme Court, politics is in play.

Associate Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson presumably timed the Wednesday announcement of her resignation from the court with a close eye on the political calendar. That calendar showed 1) President Obama winning re-election on Nov. 6, keeping the White House in Democratic control, and 2) Republican Pat McCrory winning his race to succeed Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue.

There’s no inside knowledge here of Timmons-Goodson’s plans once she leaves the court at age 58 with two years remaining in her term. But speculation that she could be in line for a federal judgeship, with the White House reaching out to an African-American Democrat with a good record on the bench, meshes well with the scenario at hand.

By leaving office soon, Timmons-Goodson would give Perdue, in the month or so before McCrory becomes governor, a chance to name another Democrat to fill the Supreme Court post.

North Carolina’s appellate judgeships are nonpartisan in that candidates aren’t nominated by parties and party labels don’t appear on ballots. Yet the partisan stakes can be high – as highlighted by the extent of successful Republican efforts to secure the Supreme Court re-election this month of Associate Justice Paul Newby.

Republicans now act as though there’s something strange and nefarious about a Supreme Court resignation whose timing allows Perdue to elevate a fellow Democrat. Would they really have expected Timmons-Goodson, assuming she had the luxury of choice about when to quit the court, to wait until McCrory was ensconced in the governor’s office before she made her move – thereby handing the appointment to him? Republicans don’t play the game that way and they shouldn’t expect the Democrats to, either.

The GOP’s leader in the state Senate, President Pro Tem Phil Berger, almost pulls a muscle as he warns Perdue either to follow a judicial screening process she established or be guilty of “rank hypocrisy soiling her legacy.” The screening process no doubt is a good idea. In fact, even if the screeners had to be instructed to move quickly, such a process still could be used.

But it’s also true that as governor, Perdue could modify or cancel her own policy. Filling judicial vacancies is her prerogative, and there is no shortage of readily identifiable candidates who have qualifications suitable for the high court.

Among them is Judge Sam Ervin IV of the state Court of Appeals, fresh from his failed effort to oust Newby. That contest drew so much advertising money from Newby-aligned groups because the partisan balance on the seven-member court was at stake. Republicans badly wanted to keep their 4-3 margin as a crucial redistricting case works its way through the pipeline.

Putting Ervin on the court would not alter that margin, but it would represent a measure of poetic justice for someone who was snowed under by partisan-driven spending. Another logical choice would be Court of Appeals Judge Cressie Thigpen, the only appellate judge to lose on Nov. 6. Appointing Thigpen, a Democrat, also would maintain an African-American presence on the court, a fair consideration in a state with many black residents.

Perdue rightly has sought to downplay the political aspects of North Carolina’s approach to judicial selection, but they can hardly be eliminated. So long as the new Supreme Court justice is of high caliber – smart, knowledgeable and even-handed – there should be no complaining about Perdue going ahead with the appointment and choosing someone of her own party.

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