State Politics

Court changes would ‘seriously harm our judicial system,’ former NC chief justices say

Burley Mitchell is one of four former N.C. Supreme Court chief justices who are opposing the legislature’s proposed changes to the court system
Burley Mitchell is one of four former N.C. Supreme Court chief justices who are opposing the legislature’s proposed changes to the court system 2010 News & Observer file photo

Four former chief justices of the N.C. Supreme Court have written a letter to General Assembly leaders to complain about two legislative actions that they say will “seriously harm our judicial system” and “hurt the people of our State.”

The letter, signed by three Democrats and one Republican, told Senate leader Phil Berger and House speaker Tim Moore that the bills to reduce the size of the state Court of Appeals and end the appointment of special judges to all courts except the business court are “premised on factual inaccuracies and will affirmatively impair the North Carolina court system.”

The letter is signed by Burley Mitchell, a Democrat who was chief justice from 1995 to 1999, James G. Exum Jr., a Democrat who served the nine years before Mitchell, Sarah Parker, a Democrat at the helm of the Supreme Court from 2006 to 2014, when she hit mandatory retirement age, and I. Beverly Lake, a Republican at the helm from 2001 to 2006.

Earlier this month, the legislature adopted a bill that would reduce the Court of Appeals from 15 judges to 12, a change that Gov. Roy Cooper has said he would veto.

“The legislative sponsors claim that the reduction is needed as the judges have had such a significant decline in their case load that a 20 percent reduction in judicial manpower is required,” the former chief justices wrote. “Nothing could be further off the mark.”

The appeals court last year, they said, decided more than 1,500 cases along with 4,456 motions.

“Any decline in cases filed has been statistically insignificant.”

The proposal to shrink the appeals court comes as three Republican members of the court approach mandatory retirement. State law in North Carolina requires judges to retire at 72.

Douglas McCullough, a Republican whose term does not expire until 2018, must retire by May 28 of this year. Republicans Robert N. Hunter and Ann Marie Calabria also would face mandatory retirement while Cooper is in the governor’s office.

Hunter could not serve beyond March 30, 2019, and Calabria, whose term expires in 2018, could serve only part of the following year if re-elected. Her mandatory retirement date is Oct. 31, 2019.

Under existing state law, Cooper would appoint the judges to serve in the vacant seats. But shrinking the court would take that power from the Democrat.

A recent review of the state appeals court found that each judge writes more than 100 opinions per year. The number was shared late last year among political talk about expanding the state Supreme Court by two seats, which never came to pass.

The former chief justices also pointed out that the appellate court will not immediately go down to 12 judges.

The former justices also raised concern about a bill that would eliminate all emergency judges except for those needed in the business court.