Appeals Court rejects challenge of now-repealed Mecklenburg judges’ law
The N.C. Court of Appeals has affirmed a ruling against challengers of a repealed law affecting Mecklenburg County judges. The law would have converted countywide District Court judicial elections into district races.
The General Assembly repealed the districting plan in 2020, rendering the legal challenge moot, according to the Appeals Court. The unanimous three-judge panel also threw out $165,000 in attorneys’ fees awarded to the challengers.
Lawmakers approved a measure in 2018 to convert all of Mecklenburg’s 21 District Court judges 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 Then the General Assembly repealed the law in July 2020.
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.
“Here, the original question in controversy, whether the judicial districts in Mecklenburg County were constitutional, was addressed when the General Assembly repealed that portion of the law and reverted to countywide elections in Mecklenburg County,” wrote Judge Jeff Carpenter for the unanimous Appeals Court. “Likewise, Plaintiffs’ request for dissolution of the judicial districts was also granted by the repeal. Plaintiffs’ argument that declaratory relief should be granted to put the General Assembly on notice is unpersuasive considering precedent clearly states the actions taken by the General Assembly render discussion of the repealed law’s constitutionality moot.”
Appellate judges rejected the argument that the case should continue because of the “public interest” in having the repealed law declared unconstitutional.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controversy between Plaintiffs and Defendants and no risk of further claims arising as the law in question has been repealed,” Carpenter wrote. “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.”
The Appeals Court also ruled out another possible exception to the mootness rule. Plaintiffs argued that the now-repealed district plan was “capable of repetition, yet evading review” by courts.
“Although judicial districts exist in other jurisdictions, Plaintiffs are all located in Mecklenburg County, and Plaintiffs’ claims relate only to judicial districts in Mecklenburg County,” Carpenter wrote. “Therefore, we find the ‘capable of repetition, yet evading review’ exception to the mootness doctrine inapplicable.”
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 will determine whether the plaintiffs’ can collect any fees.