As key pieces of the legislative agenda get scrutiny in the courts, partisan organizations and politicians are focusing on the race for the one seat up for grabs on the North Carolina Supreme Court.
The state’s highest court has a one-vote conservative majority, and that has been reflected in decisions to uphold redistricting maps found unconstitutional in the federal courts and to allow state funds to be used for private school vouchers.
Justice Bob Edmunds, who has been on the state’s highest court for 16 years, is a Republican from Greensboro facing a challenge from Wake County Superior Court Judge Mike Morgan, a Democrat from Raleigh.
Early voting begins in North Carolina on Oct. 20 and ends Nov. 5. Election day is Nov. 8.
The candidates have been going from the coast to the mountains, speaking to individuals and groups.
It was not until May that it became clear Edmunds would face any challengers in his campaign to keep his seat.
In 2015, the Republican-led General Assembly passed a law that changed how sitting justices could be re-elected. Incumbent justices could choose to stand for a retention election, meaning that voters would decide at the polls whether to keep the justice on the bench. If the voters said no, then the governor would appoint someone to fill the seat until the next election year, when the seat would be open to any candidates.
That law was struck down by a three-judge panel in February, and the state Supreme Court, with Edmunds recusing himself, deadlocked three to three on whether to uphold that decision.
Because the high court was evenly divided, the lower court ruling stood and a special primary election was hastily scheduled for June.
Edmunds, who was backed by a $450,000 TV ad campaign funded by the N.C. Chamber of Commerce during the primary, was the highest vote-getter, with 48 percent of the vote.
Morgan, a Superior Court judge since 2005 who also has been a district judge, an administrative law judge and an assistant state attorney general, was the second highest vote-getter, with 34 percent of the vote.
Sabra Faires, a Wake County attorney who successfully challenged the retention election law, received 12 percent of the vote.
It’s unclear which candidate might receive support from her voters, but if they shift their support to Morgan it could make the general election a tight race.
In a recent interview, Edmunds said he sometimes gets frustrated on the campaign trail when people ask him about what kind of judge he’ll be.
“Every opinion I’ve written, all my decisions, are out there for anybody to read,” Edmunds said. “My record is an open book. They know what they’re getting. They don’t have to guess.”
At 67, Edmunds would have to retire from the bench before his eight-year term expired. North Carolina law sets 72 as the age that justices must retire.
Morgan is 60.
Edmunds disputes that the courts have become politicized, noting that most Supreme Court decisions are unanimous.
“I do not take a political approach to cases,” Edmunds said. “The only thing I’m concerned about is what is the law and the facts of the case.”
But Morgan challenges Edmunds, noting he sides with the Republican majority in cases such as the redistricting challenges, whether the General Assembly had the power to make a law to spend public dollars on private-school vouchers and some rulings supporting the loosening of environmental regulations.
“There is that perception that politics has infected that court, and perception often becomes reality,” Morgan said.
Morgan noted Edmunds has referred to himself as a “conservative judge” in campaign literature and at events.
Edmunds has said his use of the word “conservative” is not referring to a political leaning, but rather that he is a constitutional conservative.
“I think judges should be fair and impartial and that’s what I have been,” Morgan said. “One should not espouse a political proclivity at all.”
Morgan, who has been presiding over the challenge in state courts to the N.C. voter ID law, found himself at the center of a political question posed by the conservative Civitas Institute.
A column posted on its website suggested that Morgan should recuse himself from the case, contending that he stood to benefit by having a say in the outcome as a candidate in the November general election and from publicity about the issue.
Morgan checked with the Judicial Standards Commission on whether he had a conflict in keeping that case before signing up as a Supreme Court candidate in “an abundance of caution.” He was told there was no conflict by the commission’s executive director Carolyn Dubay. In a recent interview, Morgan said that had he been politically motivated, he could have made a ruling already in the case and he has not. The case is pending.
Edmunds cites his experience on the state’s highest court and on the appeals court when asked what sets him apart from his challenger.
“There is a learning curve,” Edmunds said.
Morgan counters that with his resume and his experience in the trial courts, “I see how these trial records are created.”
“The Supreme Court is a reviewing court and with my experience I have seen what goes into creating these records that are being reviewed. I understand the nuance.”
Edmunds, according to July campaign finance reports, raised significantly more campaign funds than Morgan.
Edmunds had raised more than $173,000, and Morgan had almost $19,000.
Morgan hopes to fulfill what he describes as “his progression through the ranks to the high court,” while Edmunds hopes to maintain his seat.
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, 1986-93. Has been an assistant U.S. attorney and an assistant district attorney. Was in the U.S. Navy 1975-77.
Political affiliation: Registered Republican
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, 1989-94; assistant attorney general and associate attorney general, 1980-89
Political affiliation: Registered Democrat