Under the Dome

Judge running for Supreme Court won’t recuse in voter ID lawsuit trial

Wake Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan
Wake Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan N&O

Wake County Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan in open court on Tuesday defended his decision to preside over a voter photo ID lawsuit while campaigning for a seat on the N.C. Supreme Court.

The conservative Civitas Institute last month raised that issue, saying Morgan stands to benefit by having a say in the outcome of that case as a candidate in the November general election, and from publicity about the issue.

The Civitas story, published on its website, did not receive wide attention elsewhere. But Morgan opened a hearing on the voter ID lawsuit on Tuesday by reading a prepared statement in response.

Morgan said 11 days before he filed to run for the Supreme Court he contacted the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission executive director “out of an abundance of caution” for guidance on whether he should recuse himself. He said commission Executive Director Carolyn Dubay told him there was no conflict in continuing to handle the case.

As a result, he said, he would not recuse himself from presiding over the lawsuit, which last month he scheduled to go to trial on Sept. 26.

Morgan intentionally did not name the Civitas Institute in the statement nor specify that he was running for another office, so as to avoid the appearance of campaigning from the bench. But after court he confirmed it.

Morgan and the attorneys in the voter ID lawsuit agreed to put the case on hold until there is a decision from the federal courts on whether a similar lawsuit will continue in federal court. A three-judge panel of federal judges last month struck down a 2013 law limiting voting options and requiring voters show photo identification, saying it was discriminatory. That case is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Attorneys for the defendants said on Monday they filed a petition with the state Supreme Court to stay the proceedings and restore the voter ID requirement until the dispute is resolved. Gov. Pat McCrory, speaking at a Donald Trump rally in Wilmington, said he hoped to file a request with the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday asking it to review the lower-court ruling.

Asked about Morgan’s comments, Civitas President Francis De Luca said he wasn’t satisfied.

“Judicial Standards can say what they want but one of the reasons he was originally assigned this case was because he was not up for re-election – that was until he filed for Supreme Court,” De Luca said. “The right thing for him to do would be to withdrawal because the outcome directly impacts his election.”

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO