The N.C. Supreme Court split 3 to 3 on the legality of a law that would have changed the election process for justices on the state’s highest court seeking re-election.
The evenly divided decision, released Friday, means a lower court ruling overturning the 2015 law stands.
Voters will go to the polls in June to narrow the four-candidate field to two who will be on the November ballot for the one seat open on the state Supreme Court this year.
Justice Robert Edmunds, who recused himself from the discussion and decision in the case, is seeking re-election in that race.
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His challengers include Sabra Faires, a Raleigh attorney who filed the lawsuit that led to the overturning of the 2015 law.
Mike Morgan, a Wake County Superior Court judge, and Daniel Robertson, a Davie County resident who works as an attorney and risk analysis officer for Bank of the Carolinas, also are seeking the seat.
The ruling came less than a month after the justices heard arguments in a case that brought together two organizations often at political odds fighting for the same outcome.
“Obviously we’re pleased with the final result,” said Michael Crowell, a Raleigh attorney who represented Faires. “We need to keep looking for a better way to choose judges, but it is going to require a constitutional amendment. Letting the legislature decide session by session who faces what kind of election is not the answer.”
At issue was whether legislators overstepped their authority in 2015 when they adopted a law that would have allowed incumbent justices seeking re-election to run for reappointment on their records in a retention election, with no challengers.
Only if voters did not support keeping the justice in office for another eight-year term would other candidates be permitted to file for the seat.
Faires and others challenging the law have argued that such a change can’t be made without a statewide referendum on whether to change the N.C. Constitution.
In the friend-of-the-court brief filed by the left-leaning ACLU and the right-leaning Civitas Institute, the organizations argued similarly that moving from multi-candidate elections to up-or-down elections for a sitting justice required a state constitutional amendment.
Though there was potential for the justices to divide along party lines, with three Democrats and three Republicans hearing the case, they did not reveal in their ruling who aligned with whom.
“We do not know how the individual justices voted and I would rather not know,” Crowell added. “People are speculating it broke along party lines and that is not a good thing for the court.”
The justices left open the possibility for more hearings on retention elections in the future, by stating: “The judgment of the three-judge panel of the Superior Court, Wake County is left undisturbed and stands without precedential value.”
“I suppose the legislature could try something similar again, without a constitutional amendment and, yes, there would be another lawsuit,” Crowell said. “Let’s hope this is the end of trying to ease around the constitution.”