RALEIGH – There’s only a week left until we know the answer to an intriguing, if somewhat overlooked, question in North Carolina politics: what happens to our elections for state appellate court when voters know virtually nothing about the candidates involved?
It is fair to ask whether next Tuesday truly presents a new challenge the system. After all, we’ve been electing state judges throughout the history of North Carolina. Realistically, few voters outside of the ranks of attorneys and political activists have ever known much about them, much about their backgrounds, expertise, philosophy, record, and trustworthiness. And yet there is no evidence that North Carolinians have been grossly ill-served by their elected judiciary.
There is something new, however. In the past, voters focused primarily on other races and in no real position to evaluate judicial candidates could nevertheless rely on a piece of information immediately available and impossible to forget. They knew which candidates for Supreme Court and Court of Appeals were Democrats and which were Republicans.
No more. The General Assembly, claiming the mantle of “reform,” stripped the party labels off. At least party affiliation offered some clue to voters about candidates’ judicial philosophies. Now, the most likely scenario is a significant drop-off of voter participation in judicial elections. You have to read way down the ballot to find them, and a straight-ticket vote no longer counts. Political activists and members of interest groups won’t have a problem, which is why so many supported “reform.”
But for everyone else, and in the interest of making my scenario less likely, here’s a brief overview of the races and aspirants:
Supreme Court: Parker Seat
Incumbent Sarah Parker, a Democrat (I still get to say that), faces a challenge from Republican John Tyson, who currently serves on the appeals court. Parker has been on the Supreme Court since 1993 and before that was on the court of appeals. Tyson won election to the appeals court in 2001 and before that was an attorney in private practice, taught at Campbell University’s law school, and was a corporate counsel.
Supreme Court: Orr Seat
There are eight candidates for the vacancy left by Bob Orr’s retirement. One of four Republicans, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Newby, has actually received the endorsement of the state GOP and many party leaders. Two others, Superior Court Judge Howard Manning and Pre-Paid Legal Services attorney and former judicial law clerkRachel Hunter, have gained their own degrees of notoriety lately. Democrats in the race include Administrative Law Judge Fred Morrison, attorney Ronnie Ansley, former appeals court judge Betsy McCrodden, and current appeals court judge Jim Wynn. A fourth Republican, Marvin Schiller, is no longer actively campaigning.
Appeals Court: Thornburg Seat
Democrat Alan Thornburg, appointed to the appeals court earlier this year after serving as an attorney in private practice, faces Republican Barbara Jackson, general counsel at the NC Department of Labor.
Appeals Court: McGee Seat
Democrat Linda McGee was first appointed to the court of appeals in 1995 and then elected to a eight-year term in 1996. Her opponent, Republican Bill Parker, served in the US Air Force and as an attorney in private practice in Raleigh.
Appeals Court: Bryant Seat
Democrat Wanda Bryant was appointed to the appeals court in 2001 after a legal career as a prosecutor and senior deputy attorney general. Republican Alice Stubbs is an elected district court judge in Wake County who formerly practiced law and served as a federal court clerk.
More information is available in the state’s official voter guide for the judicial races. We’ll know soon how the experiment turns out.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.