Voters in this state will help decide this year whether Donald Trump wins a second term as president. They’ll decide who represents North Carolina in the U.S. Senate for the next six years, who lives in the governor’s mansion for the next four, and who controls the General Assembly for the next two.
With all of those important decisions on tap, it could be easy to lose track of three races for seats on the N.C. Supreme Court.
But two recent cases emerging from the state’s second-highest court might prove helpful. They remind us about the importance of the seven Supreme Court justices who serve as ultimate arbiters of state constitutional matters.
Both cases produced 2-1 splits within panels of the N.C. Court of Appeals. That helps the cases stand out in two ways. First, it’s clear that neither case constituted a constitutional slam dunk. Judges reviewing the same set of facts reached different conclusions. Variations in judicial philosophy, interpretation of precedent, and understanding of the cases’ basic elements all played roles in the outcomes.
Second, the state Supreme Court is likely to consider both cases. Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, which has broad discretion in deciding which cases to take, our state’s highest court must address a split Appeals Court ruling if the losing party seeks such a review.
In addition to these two factors, the two cases touch on important public policy issues. The first deals with school safety. The second addresses public safety for the community as a whole.
The Appeal Court’s Jan. 7 ruling in Deminski v. State Bd. of Educ. focused on bullying and sexual harassment among students at an elementary school. The panel’s two-judge majority determined that North Carolina’s state constitutional guarantee of access to a sound basic education did not include protection from persistent bullying and sexual harassment.
Reviewing precedents, including the landmark Leandro school-funding case, the majority concluded that the constitutional guarantee focused solely on issues related to academics. Neither repeated abuse nor an “abusive classroom environment” violated the state constitution’s guarantee of education access.
Nonsense, replied the dissenting judge in Deminski. “[T]he instructional environment may be so disordered, tumultuous, or even violent that the student is denied the opportunity to receive a sound basic education.” At minimum, the dissent argued, the three student plaintiffs should be allowed to proceed with their case.
Our state’s highest court could decide in the months ahead whether this case lives or dies.
Two weeks after Deminski, a different Appeals Court panel ruled against a convicted Columbus County murderer in State v. Campbell. Defendant Antiwuan Tyrez Campbell attempted to have his 2017 first-degree murder conviction tossed. His lawyer argued that racial discrimination in jury selection tainted the trial.
The two-judge majority found no error in the original case. They rejected arguments from Campbell’s lawyer, who relied on the fact that prosecutors used three of their four “peremptory” challenges to remove African Americans as potential jurors. (Unlike a removal “for cause,” a peremptory challenge does not require a prosecutor to provide a reason for striking a potential juror.)
Those numbers alone failed to convince the two appellate judges in the majority. As they noted in their ruling, “we do not know the victim’s race, the race of key witnesses, questions and statements of the prosecutor that tend to support or refute a discriminatory intent, or the State’s acceptance rate of potential African-American jurors.” Furthermore, “we see nothing in the record from which we can ascertain the final racial composition of the jury.”
That lack of basic information proved no deterrent to the dissenting judge. He wanted the case sent back to the trial court for a new hearing. He would have ordered the original judge to look further into arguments about potential racial bias.
Other than bare statistics, nothing within the majority or dissenting opinion shows any evidence of bias from prosecutors. Nor does either opinion offer details about the actual criminal deed. No parties raise questions in this case about whether Campbell actually shot Wilbur Allen Davis Jr. to death in 2015 after an argument.
Yet the 2-1 ruling means the N.C. Supreme Court is likely to see the case. The seven justices sitting on the state’s highest court could determine whether Campbell will continue to serve a life sentence behind bars or get a new hearing that could throw out his conviction.
It would be a mistake to claim that 2020 N.C. Supreme Court elections will determine the outcomes of these two cases. It’s possible that the current high court could dispose of either or both cases between now and the end of the year.
But the two cases remind us that the people serving on the state’s highest court matter. They can determine issues like the N.C. Constitution’s role in protecting elementary school students from abuse. They can decide whether a claim of racial bias in jury selection can help a defendant beat a murder charge.
Perhaps those issues might prompt voters to spend time thinking about more than just the marquee match-ups on this year’s election ballot.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.