Opinion: Daily Journal

Forthcoming decisions could help voters in 2020 N.C. Supreme Court races

The N.C. Supreme Court hears oral arguments on Aug. 27, 2019. (WRAL.com screenshot)
The N.C. Supreme Court hears oral arguments on Aug. 27, 2019. (WRAL.com screenshot)

The N.C. Supreme Court might offer voters more clues in the months ahead that will help them make choices in the 2020 elections.

Three of the court’s seven positions will be up for votes next year. Democratic victories would give that party a clean sweep of all seven seats. In contrast, Republican wins could diminish the current Democratic majority from 6-1 to 4-3.

Between now and Election Day, the current crop of justices — including three likely 2020 electoral contestants — could rule on several important matters.

From a partisan political standpoint, the most interesting issue could involve electoral redistricting.

A three-judge Superior Court panel recently forced the Republican-led General Assembly to redraw portions of state House and Senate election maps. Rather than appeal the trial court’s ruling, lawmakers complied with judges’ demands.

The panel of two Democratic judges and one Republican colleague upheld the results of the General Assembly’s handiwork. But plaintiffs in the case, led by the N.C. Democratic Party and including left-of-center activist group Common Cause, objected. The challengers believe the new legislative maps still violate the original court order against “extreme” partisan gerrymandering favoring GOP candidates.

The plaintiffs want the state Supreme Court to intervene. If the high court steps in, it would have to explain why it’s overruling the lower court’s unanimous bipartisan ruling. The Supreme Court also might be forced to address a question the lower court never answered: Where’s the dividing line between an acceptable level of partisanship in drawing election maps and the “extreme” partisanship that caused old House and Senate maps to be deemed unconstitutional?

A Supreme Court ruling in the case could offer Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, a Democrat, and Senior Associate Justice Paul Newby, a Republican, a chance to tackle the critical topic of redistricting law. Even if neither writes an opinion in the case, both would be forced to endorse an opinion. Those choices could interest voters as Beasley and Newby prepare to face each other in the 2020 chief justice’s election.

The state’s current congressional map also faces an ongoing legal dispute. It’s based on similar claims of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering. While no one has appealed a ruling to the state’s highest court, it’s possible the seven justices ultimately will address that matter.

Beyond the fight over election maps, the N.C. Supreme Court faces other questions that might interest voters heading to the polls in 2020. Among them: What role should N.C. courts play in immigration disputes?

A case argued before the seven justices on Nov. 4 pits immigration activists and the American Civil Liberties Union against the Mecklenburg County sheriff’s office. A trial court ruled that the former sheriff had violated two men’s rights. The sheriff had ignored a court order and turned the men over to federal immigration agents, critics argued.

The N.C. Court of Appeals disagreed. An appellate panel ruled in the sheriff’s favor. Those on either side of the debate over local law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration officials will await the state Supreme Court’s decision with interest.

Another case argued Nov. 4 might attract less attention from partisan political activists. But it could offer interesting information about justices’ approach to the limits of the media’s First Amendment protections.

The Raleigh News & Observer and former reporter Mandy Locke challenge a multimillion-dollar verdict against them. The judgment stems from a 2010 newspaper series on alleged SBI abuses. Both a trial court and a unanimous three-judge Appeals Court panel agreed that Locke had defamed a state firearms analyst in the course of the series.

Locke, her former employer, and other media outlets want the Supreme Court to reverse the decision. They warn about the danger of a potential chilling effect on investigative journalism. In contrast, judges at two levels of the state’s legal system have ruled that Locke clearly violated legal standards in pursuing her news narrative against the SBI analyst.

In the era of commotion about “fake news,” it’s possible that the high court’s ruling in this case could fire up supporters and critics of mainstream media outlets.

The N.C. Supreme Court has handed down opinions in 57 cases this year. Thirty-seven rulings (65%) have been unanimous. Another nine cases have produced just one dissenting vote, eight cases have been decided 4-2 or 5-2, and just two cases have produced a 4-3 margin. Another case yielded a 3-3 split, meaning that a lower court ruling remained in effect with no precedential value.

As the court’s lone Republican, Newby has written the most dissents (eight) and stood alone in dissent four times. (Justice Anita Earls has written solo dissents in five other cases.) Newby has voted least often with the court’s majority, in 44 of 56 cases (79%). In contrast, Beasley and Justices Robin Hudson and Mark Davis each have voted with the majority in all but one case this year. They are the only three justices who have not written a dissent in 2019.

While Beasley and Newby expect to face each other in the 2020 chief justice’s election, Davis will face a Republican challenger. He was appointed to his associate justice’s post earlier this year and will be seeking his first election to the state’s highest court. In the third race, candidates from outside the court will vie for Newby’s open seat.

Rulings in the cases described above could help voters decide which way to cast their ballots as they head to the polls less than one year from now.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.