Partisan divisions within North Carolina’s Supreme Court are bound to attract attention. That’s especially true in an election year.

Voters will choose a Democrat or Republican this fall to serve an eight-year term on the state’s highest court. Republicans will enter 2025 with either a 5-2 or 6-1 majority.

As observers amplify partisan differences, examples of unanimous agreement are likely to attract less scrutiny. That would be a shame in the case of Askew v. City of Kinston.

The state Supreme Court decided on June 28 that Joseph Askew and Curtis Washington could move forward with a racial-discrimination lawsuit. The two property owners challenged the way Kinston officials condemned properties labeled as blighted.

Justices united to promote a 1992 precedent case, Corum v. University of North Carolina. Corum “recognized a direct action under the State Constitution against state officials for violation of rights guaranteed by the Declaration of Rights,” Justice Anita Earls explained in her Askew opinion.

The Declaration of Rights makes up Article I of the North Carolina Constitution. It spells out fundamental rights state government must protect.

It’s notable that Earls, a Democrat, wrote the Askew decision. She has voted with the majority in just 63% of cases decided this year. In contrast, Republican Justices Trey Allen, Tamara Barringer, and Richard Dietz have voted with the majority in 100% of cases decided in 2024.

Earls ended up on the losing end of a party-line split earlier this year involving a “Corum claim.” A 4-2 court ruled in March against Frankie Delano Washington’s estate in its attempt to secure money damages related to a speedy-trial violation.

Republican justices agreed that the state Appeals Court provided an adequate remedy for Washington’s Corum claim. Appellate judges set aside the criminal convictions that prompted his speedy-trial complaint. That was enough to satisfy the majority.

Democratic justices disagreed. They would have allowed Washington’s estate to continue pursuing payments from state government.

In the Askew case, all seven justices agreed that the Appeals Court failed to address Corum claims properly.

“The question in this case is whether plaintiffs bringing Corum claims must exhaust administrative remedies before entering the courthouse doors,” Earls wrote. “The Court of Appeals said yes. Linking administrative exhaustion to subject-matter jurisdiction, it held that a court cannot hear a Corum suit unless the plaintiff first depleted all agency relief.”

Appellate judges ruled that Askew plaintiffs should not have filed a Corum claim before challenging Kinston’s condemnations of their properties through the normal administrative process.

“We reject that approach,” Earls responded. “Exhaustion of administrative remedies does not dictate jurisdiction over Corum claims. That authority flows from the Constitution itself. To ensure that North Carolinians ‘may seek to redress all constitutional violations,’ Corum creates a unique path into court when existing channels fail to offer an adequate remedy.”

Fighting condemnation of their own properties alone would not have addressed the Askew plaintiffs’ constitutional claims, Earls explained.

“According to plaintiffs, the City’s discriminatory and arbitrary decisions violated the equal protection and due process guarantees of North Carolina’s Constitution. That meant, plaintiffs continued, that the administrative process could not offer an ‘adequate remedy at state law,’” Earls wrote.

Askew and Washington actually made two Corum claims, both linked to Article I, Section 19, the Law of the Land clause of the state constitution. One claim focused on substantive due process. The other focused on equal protection of the law.

Blocking the challenged condemnations would address only the substantive due process issue, Earls wrote.

“For plaintiffs’ equal protection claim, … the constitutional violation is Kinston’s alleged discrimination based on race,” she explained. “That harm springs from plaintiffs’ right to evenhanded treatment from the government. Plaintiffs’ ultimate complaint, in other words, is not about what happens to their land but the alleged racial targeting that tainted the proceedings from the start.”

Winning the equal protection argument would mean “equal treatment from Kinston, not a specific outcome as to their properties,” Earls added.

It’s worth noting that the Supreme Court did not grant Askew and Washington a clear victory. They will return to the state’s second-highest court. Appellate judges still could uphold a trial judge’s order favoring Kinston.

Yet the Askew decision is already having an impact on another high-profile case at the state’s highest court.

Justices have asked lawyers in Singleton v. North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services to determine how the Askew ruling affects a challenge to North Carolina’s certificate-of-need healthcare restrictions.

Askew could have more long-term impacts. The case signals that North Carolina’s highest court values protecting fundamental rights more than following governmental procedures.

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