Voters will start winnowing the candidates Thursday in an election that could swing the political balance of the state’s highest court.
The four candidates seeking the only open seat on North Carolina’s Supreme Court this year didn’t really know until this month how the election process would work.
In early May, six of the seven justices on the court split 3 to 3 on the legality of a 2015 law that would have let the incumbent candidate, Robert Edmunds, run to retain his seat before any other candidates could stand for election.
Edmunds was recused from the court’s discussion and decision, and because the other justices divided evenly, a lower court ruling that nullified the law was left in place.
The General Assembly’s attempt to change the election process at a time when many of its laws are being challenged in courts is what prompted two of the four candidates to seek the seat.
Though judicial elections are nonpartisan and the courts are supposed to be a branch of government above hyperpartisan politics, recent state Supreme Court elections have seen an influx of outside money and negative campaign advertising from politically connected organizations.
Early voting for the June 7 primary elections starts Thursday, and candidates and political organizations are worried that turnout might be light because of the flux in the primary schedule.
North Carolina had a primary election in March, but because of recent court rulings, the State Board of Elections had to schedule another one for congressional races and the Supreme Court race. The field of four court candidates will be winnowed to two who proceed to the November election.
Sabra Faires, the unaffiliated voter who challenged the 2015 retention-election law, decided to seek a Supreme Court seat because she was astonished that legislators had adopted a law that a unanimous three-judge Superior Court panel found to be a violation of the state constitution.
Daniel G. Robertson, a lawyer who recently returned to his hometown of Advance after spending most of his career in private practice in California, Missouri and North Carolina, also entered the race because of the attempt to change the election process.
“It was just an effort to stack the court, to keep it Republican-controlled,” said Robertson, a registered Democrat who describes himself as “a political outsider.” “The legislature was told it was unconstitutional, and they did it anyway.”
Edmunds, a Greensboro resident, is a registered Republican, as are three of the six other justices.
Last year, the court split along party lines when it overturned a lower court ruling on school vouchers and allowed the state to use public tax dollars to help children attend private and religious schools, a program that stirred political debate.
In a 2014 decision, the four Republican justices came together in a 4-2 decision to uphold the 2011 redistricting maps shepherded through the Republican-led General Assembly that have since been questioned in the federal courts. Edmunds wrote that decision. Robert Hunter, who was an interim justice at the time, abstained from the decision that put the two Democrats at odds with the Republican justices. A federal panel found earlier this year that two of the 12 congressional districts were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders, a decision that prompted the need for a June primary.
On the campaign trail, the judicial candidates typically refrain from discussing current cases and often avoid offering opinions on political issues to ward off the potential for conflict if a lawsuit arises from them.
Wake County Superior Court Judge Mike Morgan, a Democrat seeking the seat, said he, too, is troubled by the perception that the courts are becoming too politicized.
“It’s extremely important that a judge commit himself and herself to be fair and impartial at all times – and I have grave concerns about that, particularly as it relates to this seat at this time,” said Morgan, who touts his 22 years as an administrative law judge, District Court judge and Superior Court judge as experience that distinguishes him in the race.
Edmunds, the incumbent, has served on the Supreme Court since 2001 and was on the state Court of Appeals for two years before winning his first election 16 years ago.
In his campaign literature, Edmunds says, “Most folks naturally understand that being a justice is not an entry level position.
“We need justices who have established records demonstrating that they respect the Constitution and understand the limited role of the court. North Carolina deserves justices who have never distorted the law to satisfy their own prejudices. At the same time, we want justices who understand the real world outside the courthouse and the law books.”
Faires, Morgan and Robertson argue they are better poised for a bench that they contend needs a fresh voice.
“It’s time that our court stopped being infected with politics,” said Faires, a lawyer in private practice in Raleigh who worked for many years in state government, including on both Republican and Democratic leadership staffs in the General Assembly.
Education: Vassar College, bachelor’s degree, 1971; UNC-Chapel Hill, law degree, 1975; University of Virginia, master of laws in judicial process, 2004
Professional experience: Associate justice on the state Supreme Court since 2000. N.C. Court of Appeals judge, 1999-2001. U.S. Attorney in the Middle District of North Carolina, 1986-1993. Has been an assistant U.S. attorney and an assistant district attorney. Was in the U.S. Navy from 1975-1977.
Political affiliation: Registered Republican
Education: Davidson College, 1977; UNC-Chapel Hill, law degree, 1980
Professional experience: Lawyer in private practice in Raleigh. Served on Republican and Democratic leadership staffs in the General Assembly, as an assistant secretary in the state Department of Revenue and as a staff attorney for the state Office of Administrative Hearings. She has been counsel to advocacy nonprofits and political entities.
Political affiliation: Registered as unaffiliated
Education: Duke University, bachelor’s degree in history and sociology, 1976; N.C. Central University, law degree, 1979
Professional experience: Wake County Superior Court judge since 2005; Wake County District Court judge, 1994-2004; administrative law judge, 1989-1994; assistant attorney general and associate attorney general, 1980-1989
Political affiliation: Registered Democrat
Daniel G. Robertson
Education: UNC-Chapel Hill, bachelor’s degree, 1980; University of Mississippi, law degree, 1984
Professional experience: Private practice; general counsel for Bank of the Carolinas, 2009 to 2015, before losing his job after the Bank of the Ozarks took over the bank in August 2015. Financial adviser at UBS Financial Services, 2006-2008; compliance officer at Synergy Investment Group in Charlotte and Gunn Allen Financial Inc., 2008 and 2009. Clerked for three federal judges in Mississippi and California.
Political affiliation: Registered Democrat