Opinion

Latest 4-3 N.C. Supreme Court split defies partisan expectations

Image from N.C. Judicial Branch website
Image from N.C. Judicial Branch website

You might expect the N.C. Supreme Court’s three Republican justices to wind up on the losing end when the court issues split 4-3 decisions.

But the recent ruling in State v. Meader reminds us that party labels don’t dictate every Supreme Court outcome. Given the right set of circumstances, the Republican justices can prevail. That’s true even when most of their Democratic colleagues disagree with them.

In the Meader case, the court tackled the issue of when a defendant is too drunk to take full responsibility for a criminal act. The Republican justices ended up on the prevailing side of a 4-3 split.

Before delving into the case’s details, background about the state’s highest court should prove helpful.

Republican candidates swept all three state Supreme Court elections in 2020. Their victories cut Democrats’ court majority from 6-1 to 4-3.

As in the past, a clear majority of the court’s 2021 rulings have been unanimous. Forty-six of 54 opinions issued so far this year have had no dissents. That’s 85%. Another four cases have produced a single dissenting vote. Of the remaining four cases, one produced a 3-3 split. Two others pitted the high court’s four Democratic justices against its three Republicans.

That leaves State v. Meader. In this case decided April 16, Democratic Justice Sam Ervin IV joined with the Republicans to create a 4-3 majority.

It’s not a case with a clear political angle. Nor is it a matter of life and death. A Guilford County jury convicted defendant Faye Larkin Meader in December 2018 of “felony breaking or entering a motor vehicle, misdemeanor larceny, and misdemeanor possession of stolen property.” Her split sentence included supervised probation.

But Meader appealed the verdict. Her lawyer argued that the judge in the case should have instructed the jury about a defense called “voluntary intoxication.” Under this defense, Meader would have argued that she was too drunk to have formed the criminal intent necessary for conviction.

The argument proved persuasive to three Democratic members of the N.C. Supreme Court. In her first written dissent since 2018, Justice Robin Hudson conveyed her colleagues’ sentiments.

“In the light most favorable to defendant, the evidence here tends to show that she was intoxicated and that she was unaware that she had taken another’s property,” Hudson wrote. “A rational trier of fact could conclude that defendant was so intoxicated that she could not form the requisite intent to commit the offenses charged.”

Hudson noted the jury’s struggle to reach a unanimous verdict, including its request for the court to clarify the meaning of the term “utterly incapable.” “Because the jury seemed particularly concerned with defendant’s ability to form the requisite intent, I would conclude that there is a reasonable possibility that had a voluntary intoxication instruction been given, the jury would have reached a different result,” Hudson wrote.

The court’s three Republicans, along with Ervin, disagreed.

Writing for the majority, Justice Phil Berger Jr. cited the words of the trial judge who initially blocked the “voluntary intoxication” defense. “She was not slurring her words,” the trial judge wrote, after reviewing video evidence of Meader’s interaction with police. “She was speaking in easily understandable English. There were many questions that were asked of her to which she was responsive. It was clear that she was responsive and was aware of what was going on around her.”

The court’s majority conceded that Meader showed “bizarre behavior” after the alleged theft. “However, while defendant’s actions were periodically unusual, the mere fact that ‘[a] person may be excited, intoxicated, and emotionally upset’ does not negate ‘the capability to formulate the necessary’ intent,” Berger wrote. “Defendant has failed to present substantial evidence that she was ‘utterly incapable’ of forming specific intent.”

“The undisputed evidence tended to show that defendant was aware of her surroundings, and in control of her faculties, both before and after the police arrived,” Berger added.

At one point after the theft, the record showed that Meader became “irate” and said, “No cops,” once she learned that police had been contacted.

“Defendant understood that involving law enforcement was detrimental to her interests,” Berger wrote. “To conceal her involvement in the crime, she fabricated a story about another individual’s involvement. Based on these facts, viewed in the light most favorable to defendant, she cannot demonstrate that her ‘mind and reason were so completely intoxicated and overthrown as to render [her] utterly incapable of forming [specific intent].’”

The 4-3 ruling means Meader will not get a new trial. It also reminds us that Democrats’ 4-3 majority on the N.C. Supreme Court offers no guarantee of party-line decisions in controversial cases.

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