A federal judge ordered North Carolina to reinstate partisan primary elections for state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court races, but left intact the part of a state law eliminating District Court and Superior Court primaries.

In a ruling issued Wednesday, Jan. 31, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Eagles said the General Assembly stated a legitimate governmental interest by abolishing the lower court primaries this year because lawmakers are considering a new set of judicial district maps. 

Since appellate court candidates run statewide, and are not subject to redistricting, Eagles said, the legislature failed to show a government interest in canceling those primaries. She also noted lawmakers did not cancel primaries for nonjudicial races.

The court decision affects one seat on the state’s highest court and three seats on the Appeals Court. Republican Barbara Jackson will seek re-election in the single Supreme Court race to be contested this year. Republican Appeals Court Judges Ann Marie Calabria and Rick Elmore do not plan to seek re-election, so races for their seats will be open. Appointed Democrat Judge John Arrowood will seek a full term.

The legislation involved was Senate Bill 656. The primary is scheduled May 8.

Eagles’ decision in North Carolina Democratic Party v. Berger further noted the absence of a primary is likely to create confusion during the general election. It would clutter the ballot because candidates would not be winnowed out by a primary. A large number of candidates seeking election for the same position will require voters to take more time deciding and possibly lead to lines at polling places, Eagles wrote.

With multiple candidates vying in a winner-take-all election, the winner may not get a majority. She said the U.S. Supreme Court “has long recognized the public interest in attempting to ensure that elected officials enter office with the support of a majority of voters.”

Eagles cited two previous appellate races without a primary that fit that scenario. Eight candidates ran for a single seat in the 2004 Supreme Court race, and 19 candidates vied for a single Court of Appeals seat in 2014. In each contest the winner received about 23 percent of the vote.