North Carolina judicial races from the state’s highest court down to the county and district court level technically are nonpartisan.
The candidates seeking seats on the benches throughout North Carolina are not winnowed in primary elections by political party affiliation.
Instead, the top two vote-getters in each race move to general elections that help fill the the seven seats on the state Supreme Court, 15 on the Court of Appeals, 112 seats on the Superior Courts and 270 District Court seats.
This year, though, the 2.9 million North Carolina voters who have cast ballots in the early voting period that ended Saturday, or the 3.9 million other registered voters who could go to the polls on Tuesday, will see one judicial race on their ballots that lists political parties.
As part of a 2015 North Carolina law that attempted to change the election process for North Carolina judges who hear appeals of lower court decisions, the legislators added a requirement that the party of Court of Appeals candidates be listed on the ballot.
Then this summer, at the close of the General Assembly session, a bill guided through the state House of Representatives by Rep. Bert Jones, a Rockingham County Republican, before approval by the state Senate, changed the order of the ballot to give first billing to the candidates in the same party as the governor.
Since Gov. Pat McCrory is a Republican, all the GOP candidates in the five statewide seats at play on the appellate court will be listed with their party beside their names over the Democratic candidates.
That change moved Phil Berger Jr., the son of the leader of the state Senate, to the top of the Court of Appeals ballot. His is the first name that voters come to in the statewide race for the five seats at play. This summer, a spokeswoman for the senior Phil Berger noted that the proposal to switch the order of the ballot started in the state House, not the Senate.
The candidates and the seats they are running for in the order they appear on the ballot are:
The Linda Stephens seat.
▪ Berger, a former Rockingham County district attorney and the son of state Senate president Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County, made an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2014. Since then, he was appointed by the governor to be an administrative law judge in the state Office of Administrative Hearings.
▪ Stephens, a Democrat who has been an appeals court judge since 2006, began her legal career in 1979 as a law clerk for the same court. She served as a deputy commissioner on the Industrial Commission for nearly four years before going into private practice and then being appointed an appellate judge by former Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat, in 2006. She lost the election that year, but was reappointed to a different vacant seat in 2007 before her first successful election in 2008.
The Martha Geer seat.
Geer stepped down from the bench in May before the expiration of her term. Because Geer stepped down after the primary elections for the state Court of Appeals race, voters are asked to choose from the three candidates who filed to fill her seat.
▪ Hunter Murphy, a Republican, received a law degree in 2006 from the University of the Pacific in Sacramento, California, and has worked in private practice since then. Murphy campaigned unsuccessfully in 2014 for a seat on the state Court of Appeals in a field that included 19 candidates.
▪ Donald R. Buie, a Democrat, has worked in private practice in Winston-Salem since receiving his law degree from N.C. Central University in 1981.
▪ Margaret D. Eagles, a Democrat and Wake County District Court judge since 2009, received her law degree from Campbell University in 2000.
The Robert N. Hunter Jr. seat
▪ Hunter is a Republican who has served on the Court of Appeals since 2009 except for a four-month period in 2014 in which he was appointed to fill a vacancy on the state Supreme Court, a seat he campaigned for but lost in 2014. McCrory then appointed Hunter to the state appeals court to fill a seat in January 2015. Hunter has a law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and a master of law degree from Duke University.
▪ Abe Jones is a Democrat who served as a Wake County Superior Court judge from 1995 to 2012 before losing his bid for re-election. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Jones works in private practice in Raleigh.
The Richard Dietz seat
▪ Dietz is a Republican who has been a member of the appellate court since 2014, when he was appointed by McCrory to fill the remainder of Hunter’s term after he moved briefly to the state Supreme Court. The Winston-Salem resident, who worked in private practice in Forsyth County before being appointed to the appellate post, is a 2002 graduate of Wake Forest University law school.
▪ Vince Rozier, a Democrat and Wake County District Court judge since 2011, also did a four-year stint from 2006 to 2010 when he was defeated for re-election. Before he was reappointed as a district court judge by former Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, in 2011, Rozier served briefly as an ombudsman for the State Bureau of Investigation. He also has worked as a prosecutor in the Wake County District Attorney’s Office.
The Valerie Zachary seat
▪ Zachary, a Republican, was appointed to the bench in July 2015 by McCrory to fill the vacancy left by retired Judge Sanford Steelman. Zachary, one of 19 candidates seeking a seat on the court in 2014, was unsuccessful in that bid for election. A 1987 graduate of Harvard law school, Zachary lives in Yadkinville.
▪ Rickye McKoy-Mitchell, a Democrat, is a Mecklenburg County district court judge with experience as a former prosecutor there, too. A graduate of the UNC-Chapel Hill law school, McKoy-Mitchell has been a judge since 1998.
The state appeals court, which hears cases in panels of three, decides questions of law, not fact, in reviewing cases from the trial courts. The court hears all civil and criminal appeals from the superior and district courts, except for cases in which the death penalty is imposed. Those sentences are appealed directly to the state Supreme Court.
The appellate judges serve eight-year terms.
Whether having the party affiliation so accessible on the ballot to voters will help or hurt a candidacy is uncertain, says Michael Munger, director of the Duke University philosophy, politics and economics program, especially with the two candidates at the top of the ticket and the unusual election year that 2016 has been.
Munger said he expected that some Republicans who could not get on board with the Donald Trump candidacy might “hold their nose” and vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton for president, “but then vote Republican all [the] rest of ballot, out of shame.”
“Independents,” Munger added in an e-mail exchange, “may vote against Republicans out of Trump hate. Having [a] partisan identifier will facilitate both effects.”
The addition of the partisan labels to one of the judicial races comes at a time when many are questioning whether politics has infected the justice system. Though some think appointing judges would remove susceptibility to political or ideological constituencies, North Carolina relies on voters to choose who sits on the benches. Judicial candidates, though, are limited in what they can discuss on the campaign trail to maintain a sense of impartiality.
“Judges are supposed to remain neutral, you hope,” said Bob Hall, head of Democracy North Carolina, a voting rights organization. “Some believe the party labels are a shortcut to seeing what their biases will be. But on the other hand, you would rather they not have biases.”
Michael Crowell, a Raleigh lawyer, said he thought there were two explanations for why the Appeals Court ballot was changed this year.
“The more benign, neutral one is that there are many people who believe that with very little information about the candidates, especially in presidential years when there are many races on the ballot, party affiliation gives people some hint about what they’re voting for.”
Crowell successfully helped a former state Supreme Court candidate overturn an attempt to change how justices stand for re-election. He noted that early in legislative discussions about creating those retention elections, the Appeals Court was to be included.
Three of the four seats that were to be open this year were held by Republicans. Stephens, a Democrat who has written decisions critical of some of the Republican legislative agenda, would also have been able to opt for a retention election if the Appeals Court was part of the law. With little public explanation, the Court of Appeals was dropped from the proposal before the bill went to a vote.
“In this particular incidence, the record certainly makes it look like the changes were made to insert politics into the nonpartisan election,” Crowell said, referring to the changes made in the past two years to the ballot for appellate elections.
State Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, a Republican from Wake County, said putting the party affiliation on the ballot gives voters more information in what is supposed to be a nonpartisan race. He also acknowledged that switching the order of the candidates could give one party an advantage but added that it wasn’t anything that had not been done by the Democrats before.
Abe Jones, the former Wake County Superior Court judge seeking one of the five seats on the state Court of Appeals, confirmed last week that he was convicted of driving while impaired from a Wilmington arrest in late 2013.
Jones, who lost his campaign for re-election to the Wake County bench in 2012, was in private practice then.
He said he was trying to help a friend who should not have been driving either but was stopped and convicted of the misdemeanor.
“It happened. I made a mistake. I’m not proud of it,” Jones said, adding that he had fulfilled community service and other requirements of his sentence.
Jones added that the experience provided him a different glimpse of the justice system, one that could add depth if he were called on to review any DWI appeals.