Bob Edmunds, a state Supreme Court justice, has recused himself from hearing the case about how sitting justices are re-elected.
Edmunds, a Republican whose eight-year term on the bench ends this year, is the only justice seeking re-election in November. His seat is the only one open this election cycle.
In February, a three-judge panel in Superior Court struck down a 2015 law that established retention elections for the N.C. Supreme Court. Under that law, voters would have been asked whether Edmunds should be retained in his post as an associate justice. Only if voters decided against his retention would another candidate be allowed to enter the race.
Sabra Faires, a Wake County attorney who plans to seek election to the N.C. Supreme Court this year, challenged the law. The three-judge panel agreed with her contentions that moving from contested elections to up-or-down retention votes would require a voter-approved amendment to the state Constitution, which did not happen.
On April 13, the state Supreme Court is set to hear an appeal of that decision.
If the justices split along partisan lines, it could be a three-three vote. In such cases, the lower court ruling stands.
On Thursday, an order scheduling the emergency hearing was amended to reflect Edmunds’ decision to abstain from participation. Some have questioned whether the entire court has a conflict of interest in hearing the case since all of the justices will be eligible for re-election.
“Obviously this is a unique situation and a very difficult situation for the court,” said Michael Crowell, a Raleigh attorney who is representing Faires.
The next justices up for election are two Republicans on a court with four Republicans and three Democrats.
The term for Justice Barbara Jackson, a Republican, expires in 2018. Justice Paul Newby’s term expires in 2020. Newby’s campaign in 2012 showed the keen interest of partisan groups in North Carolina’s nonpartisan judicial elections. Groups from outside North Carolina with ties to the national Republican Party funneled about $2.3 million into the state four years ago to help Newby push back a challenge from Democrat Sam J. Ervin IV, who won election to the state’s high court in 2014.
The courts have been grappling with a host of legal issues lately that divide along partisan lines – new election laws, school vouchers, environmental regulations, abortion clinic restrictions, congressional and legislative redistricting, and more.
And judicial campaigns, technically nonpartisan, have become steeped in politics as the cases make their way through the courts.
As the retention election appeal pends, a candidate filing period remains open until March 25.
If more than two candidates file for the seat on the state Supreme Court, a primary election is set for June 7 to winnow the field to two for the general election in November.