Voters upset by the runaway actions of the General Assembly will have a chance to apply the legal brakes Tuesday. They’ll get to narrow the field of candidates up for election to a crucial seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court, which should be a check to a legislature fond of passing laws of questionable legality.
Four candidates are on the ballot. The two who receive the most votes will face off in November’s general election. This is a low-profile election further obscured by the legislature’s abuse of the electoral process. Lawmakers passed and Gov. Pat McCrory signed a law that would have changed state Supreme Court elections to “retention votes.” An incumbent justice would gain a new term by receiving more that 50 percent of the votes in a simple yes/no election without opponents.
This was a neat trick since the only justice up for re-election was Associate Justice Robert Edmunds, a Republican. Should he have lost a retention vote, his replacement would have been named by McCrory, a Republican. Thus, for Republicans, it was heads we win, tails we win.
The electoral change was challenged in a lawsuit filed by one of the Supreme Court candidates, attorney Sabra Faires. Her claim was supported by a panel of three Superior Court judges and survived on appeal when the state Supreme Court split 3-3, with Edmunds not voting because he would have been affected by the outcome.
The 3-3 vote demonstrates how the court has become politicized to the point where rulings on even straightforward legal questions can be warped to fit political agendas.
The best outcome of this contest would be an end to Republican control of the court. For that, Faires is an appealing candidate. In addition to saving the election itself, she is politically independent and deeply knowledgeable about the state’s legislative process having served legislative leaders of both parties.
Michael Morgan, a Wake County Superior Court judge, would also be a strong addition to the court. With 26 years of judicial service, he is well-respected for his knowledge and his fairness.
Edmunds has the advantage of experience on the court and the support of four former chief justices. His legal credentials are strong, but his eagerness to make partisan appeals in campaigning suggests he will not provide the political independence or balance the court needs.
Daniel Robertson, a private attorney, is also running but lacks the legal experience and credentials of the three others.