The following editorial appeared in the December 2016 print edition of Carolina Journal:
When it comes to plans to pack the N.C. Supreme Court with new members, the John Locke Foundation instigated nothing. Yet frenzied left-of-center partisans and even some mainstream media outlets fingered JLF as the source of an idea that circulated within the political chattering class in the wake of the Nov. 8 election.
Here are the facts: Shortly after Superior Court Judge Mike Morgan’s upset victory over incumbent Associate Justice Bob Edmunds, rumors of a Supreme Court expansion started swirling through N.C. political circles.
Edmunds is a Republican. Morgan is a Democrat. Morgan’s win ensured that a nominally nonpartisan Supreme Court would shift from a 4-3 GOP majority to a 4-3 majority favoring Democrats.
On the morning of Nov. 10, a JLF and Carolina Journal staffer spoke with a television reporter who mentioned a rumor that legislative Republicans might want to expand the Supreme Court to help shift its majority back toward the GOP. A newspaper reporter involved in the same conversation also had heard the rumor.
Shortly after noon that day, a reporter from one of the state’s largest newspapers emailed the JLF staffer. The reporter asked whether lawmakers would need a constitutional amendment to expand the Supreme Court. The message concluded: “Sounds like that is being considered as a possibility for any Hurricane Matthew relief special session to take away left-leaning 4-3 advantage on the court.”
Perusing the N.C. Constitution, the JLF staffer was surprised to learn that Article IV, Section 6 specifically authorizes lawmakers to expand the Supreme Court by up to two additional justices.
After answering the newspaper reporter’s email, the JLF staffer assumed anyone else who had heard the rumor would like to know the facts. He posted the information at CarolinaJournal.com, noting “speculation about such a move.”
The online item offered no hint of any concrete plans to expand the high court. More important, the piece said nothing about the John Locke Foundation’s stance on the issue.
A handful of media outlets contacted the staffer and asked about JLF’s position. They learned that the organization had taken no stance. They also learned that the JLF staffer responsible for the online news item thought court expansion was an idea that “would create more problems than it would solve.”
Other media outlets and left-leaning advocacy groups weren’t as diligent in their investigations. In their reports, the John Locke Foundation became the initial source of the court-expansion idea. Some said JLF had instigated the plan, actively arguing in favor of adding two justices to the Supreme Court.
This characterization was false.
Whether the initial court-expansion rumors lead to any substantive action or not, the incident reminds us of an important lesson: A reporter who refuses to check his sources is liable to get the story wrong.