Opinion: Carolina Beat

Supreme Court Election Is Key

Perhaps the most important election in November will be that for an eight-year term on the North Carolina Supreme Court. Legislative decisions often are challenged in the courts, and good outcomes depend on who sits on the bench.

The Republicans won the General Assembly in 2010 and are favored to retain control in 2013. But will control of the General Assembly, a potential gubernatorial victory, and wins in several Council of State seats be enough to ensure implementation of conservative ideas?

Both sides have used the courts to enforce or undo laws over the years, and court challenges were plentiful during the 2011-12 session. Lawsuits have been filled opposing dues check-off for state employees, annexation reform, and funding for preschool programs. Additional lawsuits are expected opposing reforms to medical malpractice, worker’s comp, regulations, and drilling procedures for extracting natural gas.

But the biggest fight will be over redistricting. Soon after the 2011 enactment of new maps, a lawsuit was filed asking the courts for an injunction to reject the maps immediately. It was denied. Then came a series of suits regarding procedural questions. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments, but a decision is slow in coming. Chief Justice Sarah Parker, a Democrat, sets the calendar for the court.

If the Court throws out the current maps, based on 2001 litigation, here’s what may happen with Rucho v. Dickson, the lawsuit challenging the legality of the maps. A three-judge Wake County Superior Court panel will hear the challenge first. Expect a ruling in late 2013. Count on an appeal. The case then will head directly to the Supreme Court.

The November 2012 election will determine the makeup of the Supreme Court. Republicans now hold a 4-3 edge. Republican Justice Paul Newby is standing for re-election against appeals court Judge Sam Ervin IV, a Democrat. If Newby wins, the court stays Republican; if Ervin wins, the court goes Democrat.

Because the issue is complicated, the Supremes most would likely hear the case in spring of 2014, delaying candidate filing and the primary for the 2014 election until everything is sorted out. A ruling that comes out in July or August 2014 would be perilously close to the November 2014 election.

Current law says only the legislature can draw redistricting maps. Expect a lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of that law, which could succeed. This would allow the Supreme Court to draw new maps. Because North Carolina falls under the jurisdiction of the federal Voting Rights Act, we would have to get preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice. New maps and abbreviated election cycle mean a short filing period, a September 2014 primary prior to the November 2014 election for all legislative and congressional seats — and the U.S. Senate seat now held by Kay Hagen.

Hagan’s opponent, who most likely will have a heated and expensive primary and only two months of a general election to recover and campaign against the incumbent, will be at a disadvantage.

The court will determine the maps that will be in effect for the next decade, until the next statewide redistricting. Whoever holds the pen for redistricting holds the key to power. We’ve assumed that the penholders were in the General Assembly, but in 2013, the Supreme Court may hold the real power.

In the meantime, all eyes will be on the N.C. Supreme Court to determine whether the 2011 maps are legal. Other questions regarding education, tax, and regulatory reform will come before the court. Which way the court rules on these important matters depends on who is elected in November.

Becki Gray is vice president for outreach at the John Locke Foundation.