Lawyers representing N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein and Republican legislative leaders want the state Supreme Court to reject a lawsuit linked to now-repealed Mecklenburg County judicial districts.
In a joint filing, both sets of lawyers say the case is moot. The General Assembly voted in 2020 to repeal the law that created the judicial districts.
“A unanimous panel of the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling that Petitioners’ claims are moot, and that no exception to the mootness doctrine applies,” according to the new court document. “In so doing, the Court of Appeals faithfully applied decades of North Carolina precedents holding that when the General Assembly repeals a statute, any claims challenging that statute become moot.”
Because of the three-judge Appeals Court panel’s “routine application of settled mootness principles,” there’s no need for the state’s highest court to review the case, according to the brief.
State and legislative lawyers also reject the argument that the case would help resolve a “substantial” constitutional question. “Petitioners are incorrect,” the brief explained. “Petitioners’ original claims, to be sure, did arise under the federal and state constitutions. But both the trial court and the Court of Appeals declined to take up Petitioners’ constitutional claims on mootness grounds. As the case comes to this Court, then, the only question fit for this Court’s review is the question whether Petitioners’ claims are moot. That question is clearly not a constitutional one.”
The document delivers a warning about the potential impact of accepting the case. “[D]espite what Petitioners contend, simply because their Complaint involves some constitutional claims does not mean that those claims qualify as raising ‘substantial’ constitutional questions,” the brief explained. “Under Petitioners’ argument, every claim involving free speech or the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination would pose a ‘substantial’ constitutional question, regardless of how well-settled the law is on that particular issue.”
“This would set a precedent that would overburden this Court with flurries of appeals as of right based upon issues that the Court of Appeals is entirely capable of resolving by applying well-settled principles of constitutional law.”
The state Supreme Court agreed on Feb. 23 to block the Appeals Court’s ruling in the case. A final resolution of the dispute will have no impact on current Mecklenburg County judicial elections. But it could help determine the fate of $165,000 in lawyers’ fees.
In addition to throwing out the case, the unanimous Appeals Court ruled Feb. 1 that a three-judge Superior Court panel had made a mistake in awarding lawyers’ fees.
The case started when plaintiffs challenged a 2018 state law. It converted all of Mecklenburg’s 21 District Court judicial elections from countywide races to races falling under eight new districts. State Rep. Kelly Alexander, D-Mecklenburg, joined with two District Court judges, a former judge, and two other Mecklenburg voters to file suit against the plan.
A legal agreement in November 2019 blocked use of the districting plan for the 2020 election. Then the General Assembly repealed the law in July 2020. The repeal ended the challenged judicial districts.
Plaintiffs continued to push their case, but a trial court panel dismissed the lawsuit as moot. Two months later, the panel awarded plaintiffs $165,000 in attorneys’ fees.
Appellate judges rejected the argument that the case should continue because of the “public interest” in having the repealed law declared unconstitutional.
“[T]here is no underlying controversy between Plaintiffs and Defendants and no risk of further claims arising as the law in question has been repealed,” wrote Judge Jeff Carpenter. “Moreover, even where there may be grave issues of constitutional concern, this Court will not except a case from the mootness doctrine solely to render an advisory opinion. This is particularly the case where the General Assembly has acted to address those constitutional concerns.”
Carpenter and fellow Judges Allegra Collins and Toby Hampson also agreed that the Superior Court panel did not have jurisdiction to award attorneys’ fees in the case. They ordered the case to return to a single Superior Court judge. That judge would determine whether the plaintiffs can collect any lawyers’ fees.
There’s no timetable for state Supreme Court action in this dispute.