NC Senate floor debate becomes heated over new judicial elections bill
Two Republicans are running for a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court this November, but Republican state legislators don’t want voters to know that.
A bill filed by state Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown would not allow Chris Anglin to be listed as a Republican on the ballot. But the incumbent in the election, Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jackson, would still be listed as a Republican. The Democrat in the race, Durham civil rights attorney Anita Earls, would also continue to be listed as a Democrat.
Republican officials have said they fear Anglin is a secret Democrat who’s only pretending to be a Republican to split the GOP vote and turn the court’s 4-3 liberal tilt into a 5-2 advantage. That would happen if Earls defeats Jackson. Anglin, who was a registered Democrat until June and whose campaign consultant is Democratic operative Perry Woods, has denied those allegations.
Anglin isn’t mentioned by name in the bill, which says: “The party information listed by each of the following candidates’ names is shown only if the candidates’ party affiliation or unaffiliated status is the same as on their voter registration at the time they filed to run for office and 90 days prior to that filing.”
The bill, filed in a special session called to change how constitutional amendments will appear on the fall ballot, applies only to candidates for judicial offices. It passed through the General Assembly quickly on Tuesday, along party lines with Democrats opposed, and now heads to Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, who will have to decide whether to veto it. Cooper’s veto power is largely symbolic since Republicans have more than enough votes in both the House and Senate to override his veto.
In a written statement sent Tuesday while the legislature was still debating the bill, Anglin said he welcomes the debate over what it means to be a Republican. But he criticized the bill that targeted him.
“This evening GOP leaders of the legislature are once again demonstrating that they have forgotten what it is to be Constitutional Conservatives,” Anglin said. “They are so frightened by our campaign and message, that in a stunning act of cowardice, they are taking steps to misrepresent who I am on the ballot. They made the rules, I followed them. This is another example of them changing the rules in the middle of the game. They will stop at nothing to hand pick their judge and undermine our democratic process.”
Several Democratic legislators also criticized the bill for changing rules in the middle of the election. And Republican Sen. Dan Bishop said he initially agreed with that criticism. But in a reference to Anglin, Bishop said he was convinced to support the measure because of political maneuvering.
“Someone who set out to teach the General Assembly a lesson showed us there was an opportunity ... to pull the wool over the people’s eyes, to deceive the people,” Bishop said.
Democrats in the legislature delighted in pointing out Tuesday that all the controversy around stripping Anglin’s party label from the ballot is the result of recent GOP-backed laws backfiring.
Republicans canceled primary elections for judicial races earlier this year, which would normally have winnowed the race down to just one candidate from each party. And Supreme Court races didn’t include partisan labels for more than a decade until Republican legislators restored them after the liberal-leaning challenger Michael Morgan beat the conservative-leaning incumbent Robert Edmunds in 2016.
“You ever heard the expression, hoisted on your own petard?” Senate minority leader Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat, asked Republicans in a committee hearing about the bill Tuesday.
State and federal courts have been among the only places North Carolina Republicans have faced defeat in recent years, as they control a veto-proof majority in the General Assembly. Since the GOP took control of the state legislature in 2011, more than a dozen new laws they passed have later been ruled unconstitutional.
Legislators have toyed with the idea of making numerous changes to the state’s entire judicial system. Asked Tuesday about further changes in the works, Senate leader Phil Berger didn’t commit one way or the other.
“There’s been talk for a while about that but no decision’s been made,” he told a group of reporters.
Brown, who sponsored the bill Tuesday, said it wasn’t intended to target Anglin but rather to correct a process for “anyone who wants to run for any judicial race.”
Anglin has maintained that he is a legitimate Republican candidate.
“I filed as a Republican to ... stand up for the independence of the judiciary,” Anglin said in an interview earlier this month.
In the run-up to the deadline for candidates to file for the Supreme Court race and other statewide judicial races, there were efforts that appeared aimed at taking votes away from Democratic candidates. A shadowy group tied to Republican consultants sent mailers to lawyers around the state, pretending to be a Democratic firm soliciting liberal lawyers to enter the races. But no one did, so the race remains a three-way contest between Anglin, Earls and Jackson.
Anglin is a Raleigh personal injury attorney.
Earls is the former executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a civil rights advocacy group which has successfully sued to overturn several recent laws including controversial laws regarding gerrymandering and voter ID.
Jackson has been on the Supreme Court since 2010, was on the state Court of Appeals before that, and previously worked in state government.