Early on the first day of 2023, when some were still in church and many were still sleeping off a late New Year’s Eve, North Carolina’s two new state Supreme Court justices, both Republicans, took their oaths of office. Trey Allen and Richard Dietz officially joined North Carolina’s highest court and flipped control of the court from liberal Democrats to conservative Republicans.
Chief Justice Paul Newby administered the oath to the two men who will help Newby move from writing brilliant and scathing dissenting opinions to crafting majority opinions from a conservative view.
In taking the oath, 45-year-old Dietz continues a meteoritic rise in politics and the law. He graduated first in his class from Wake Forest University School of Law in 2002 and served as research editor of the Wake Forest Law Review. Dietz was first appointed to the N.C. Court of Appeals by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in August 2014. He was elected to a full term on the Court of Appeals in 2016. Last November, Dietz defeated Democrat Lucy Inman 52% to 47%.
Dietz’s wife, Kelley, held the Bible as the new justice took his oath.
“It was an honor to take the oath of office today at the Supreme Court, and I am grateful to Chief Justice Newby for administering my oath,” Dietz told Carolina Journal. “This was an exciting moment for me, but the biggest privilege is starting work tomorrow on the Court. I am so proud of our justice system and all the amazing people who work in our courts. I look forward to continuing to serve them, and the people of our State, as a member of the state’s highest court.”
The pride of Robeson County, Allen took the oath of office witnessed by his family, including his parents, Curtis and Elaine Allen, who still live in Robeson, and his wife, Teryn Melissa Smith Allen, another Robeson County native. Allen obtained a bachelor’s degree from UNC Pembroke and a law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.
Allen began his legal career as a judge advocate in the U.S. Marine Corps. He spent most of his time in the Marines overseas, and his military service included a deployment to Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. As a judge advocate, Allen advised commanding generals and subordinate commanders on military justice and operational law matters, prosecuted violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and helped fellow Marines resolve personal legal issues.
After being honorably discharged, Allen completed a clerkship with Newby, then an associate justice on the state Supreme Court. In 2013 Allen joined the faculty at UNC Chapel Hill, where his research, writing, and teaching focused on local government law. Allen was named Coates Distinguished Term Associate Professor of Public Law and Government for 2020-2022.
Following Newby’s installation as chief justice in January 2021, Allen was appointed general counsel for the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts. Newby is a strong believer in Allen’s ability and talents.
Both men, along with Dietz, share the same broad judicial philosophy as common-sense constitutional conservatives who practice judicial self-restraint. All believe that judges interpret the constitution and laws as the drafters intended and that if the General Assembly wants to change laws or if the people want to change their constitution, each has the authority to do so. It is the courts’ job to apply the state constitution and laws as written.
“It is the honor of a lifetime to join our state’s highest court,” Allen told CJ moments after taking the oath. “I am so grateful to the people of North Carolina for this opportunity. I will do my utmost to administer justice without favor, denial, or delay.”
Allen will have a formal public investiture ceremony on Wednesday. Allen defeated incumbent Democrat Supreme Court Justice Sam “Jimmy” Ervin IV, 52% to 48%, in the November election.
Newby, Allen, and Dietz join Justices Phil Berger Jr. and Tamara Barringer to form a five-member conservative Republican majority on the seven-member court.
As Carolina Journal’s Mitch Kokai noted, “After six years of dominance by Democrats, including a 4-3 Democratic court for the past two years, the N.C. Supreme Court that begins work in January will feature a 5-2 Republican majority. That partisan shift could affect major cases involving election maps, voting rules, school funding, and parental school choice.”
One of the first cases up for discussion in the new year is a case that could determine whether felons who have completed active prison time will be able to vote in future N.C. elections.
A 2-1 Appeals Court ruling, with two Democratic judges outvoting a Republican colleague, allowed felons on probation, parole, or post-release supervision to register and vote in the latest general election, in direct contradiction to the written text of the state constitution.
The Republican-led General Assembly will redraw the state’s election map for 14 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. A court-imposed map used only for 2022 produced a 7-7 split between the two major parties. Pundits predict that GOP lawmakers will produce a new map that’s likely to favor at least a 9-5 Republican-friendly split in 2024.
With the outgoing state Supreme Court’s Dec. 16 decision in Harper v. Hall, lawmakers might also be required to redraw their N.C. Senate election map. Legal challenges involving any new statewide election maps could head back to the state Supreme Court in 2023.
Justices might also take another crack at photo identification requirements for state voters. On Dec. 16 the outgoing court used the Holmes v. Moore case to strike down North Carolina’s 2018 voter ID law. It’s possible a voter ID dispute could return to the state’s highest court for further action in 2023.
It’s also possible that justices could be asked to revisit N.C. NAACP v. Moore. In that case, the court split 4-3 along party lines in August to rule that a trial judge could throw out two state constitutional amendments. One of the voter-approved amendments from 2018 would enshrine a voter ID requirement in the state’s governing document. The other would lower an existing constitutional cap on state income tax rates.
A trial judge is scheduled to take up the Leandro education funding lawsuit again. In November a split 4-3 Supreme Court ordered the judge to determine how much of his earlier $785 million Leandro spending order should proceed. High-court Democrats also ordered the judge to force state officials to transfer Leandro-related funds from the N.C. treasury without input from the General Assembly.
It’s likely that whatever order emerges from the Leandro court will face an appeal back to state Supreme Court justices.