In a judicial race that is supposed to be nonpartisan, politics played a major role in when and why voters went to the polls Tuesday to narrow the field of candidates seeking a seat on the state’s highest court.
Four candidates for one open seat on the N.C. Supreme Court had to face off in a winnowing primary vote that only occurred because of a court ruling that eliminated a legislative attempt last year to switch to so-called “retention” elections.
Turnout was light, less than 10 percent, in a statewide race that has the potential to swing the political and philosophical tilt on a court that has grappled in recent years with a host of legal issues that divide along partisan lines.
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Incumbent Justice Robert “Bob” Edmunds, a Republican who has been on the Supreme Court since 2001, will face a challenge in November from Mike Morgan, a Democrat from Wake County who touts his 22 years of experience as a Superior Court judge, district judge and administrative law judge.
Edmunds was the top vote-getter with 48.97 percent of the vote, with 2,634 of 2,709 precincts reporting. Morgan had 33.27 percent of the vote.
In one northern Wake County judicial district, voters also winnowed a field of five candidates for a Superior Court seat to two who will face off in November.
The courts, which are supposed to be above hyper-partisanship, have seen an influx of money in recent years from political organizations trying to have influence on the judiciary that decides whether laws pass constitutional muster.
North Carolina’s highest court is currently split between four Republicans and three Democrats.
Voters would not have had a choice of candidates this year if not for one of the candidates, Sabra Faires, a Wake County attorney who is registered as unaffiliated. She sued the state over a 2015 law that changed the election process for the Supreme Court, a change many said was intended to protect Edmunds. Under the retention election law, which was found by a three-judge panel to violate the state Constitution, sitting justices seeking re-election would not face challengers, only an up-or-down retention vote every eight years.
Faires challenged the law, and a panel of Superior Court judges unanimously agreed with her. The Supreme Court, with Edmunds recusing himself, split 3-3 in a deadlock vote in May that meant the lower court ruling stood and the election process that had been in place for years was back in play.
Edmunds, the only Republican in the field of four, is seeking re-election to an eight-year term. But because he is 67 now, and North Carolina law requires judges to leave the bench by the last day of the month in which they turn 72, Edmunds would have to retire before the term expired.
In addition to Edmunds, Morgan and Faires, who had 12.07 percent of the vote, Dan Robertson, a lawyer from Advance who calls himself “an outsider,” also was in the field of candidates seeking the Supreme Court seat. He received 5.69 percent of the vote.
In Wake County, former Judge Paul Gessner’s retirement from the Superior Court bench before the end of his term created the need for a special election. Judicial District 10C is a northern region of the county that includes Rolesville, Wake Forest and the area around Falls Lake.
In a race that could determine whether the Wake County Superior Court bench includes a woman, voters will choose in November between the top two primary vote-getters.
Rebecca “Becky” Holt, a Wake County assistant district attorney who is registered as unaffiliated, led the field with 38 percent of the vote with all 38 precincts reporting. Though female Superior Court judges from other counties sometimes preside over trials and proceedings in Wake County, there currently is not a woman on the bench.
Michael Denning, a Wake County District Court judge since 2010 and registered Republican, will be on the November ballot with Holt after garnering 28.38 percent, or the second largest amount, of the 14,817 ballots cast.
Voter registrations from the district show it leans slightly toward the Republican Party, with unaffiliated voters making up the next highest group, and Democrats just a few percentage points behind.
Hoyt Tessener, a personal injury attorney with the firm Martin & Jones, who is registered as unaffiliated, had 17.47 percent of the vote. Karlene “K” Turrentine, who practices municipal, business and administrative law with Turrentine Law Firm and is a registered Democrat, had 10.64 percent. Ronnie Ansley, an attorney and registered Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for a District Court seat in 2014, had 5.45 percent of the vote.
N.C. Supreme Court Associate Justice
Daniel Robertson: 5.69%
Michael R. (Mike) Morgan: 33.27%
Robert H. (Bob) Edmunds: 48.97%
Sabra Jean Faires: 12.07%
N.C. Superior Court Judge District 10C
Hoyt Tessener: 17.47%
Karlene (K) Turrentine: 10.64%
Michael Denning: 28.38%
Rebecca (Becky) Holt: 38.06%
Ronnie Ansley: 5.45%