Republicans, Democrats on top state court split more often than not in latest rulings

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  • The latest batch of state Supreme Court decisions included six party-line splits, compared to four unanimous rulings. Republicans outnumber Democrats, 5-2, on the state's highest court.
  • In State v. Tucker, the court's Republican majority rejected a death row inmate's attempt to win a new trial based on questions about jury selection in his case.
  • With seven new dissents Friday, Democratic Justice Anita Earls ended up voting with the court's majority less than half of the time in 2023.

Six of the 11 opinions released Friday from the North Carolina Supreme Court included straight party-line splits. After dissenting in seven of the 11 cases, the court’s senior Democrat ended up voting with the majority in less than half of the cases decided in 2023.

Republicans hold a 5-2 majority on the state’s highest court. Four cases decided Friday split the court, 5-2, exactly along party lines.

In a fifth case, State v. Tucker, justices split 5-1 with Democratic Justice Allison Riggs taking no part in the decision. The Tucker case dealt with whether to grant a new trial to a death-row inmate.

“Through a series of post-conviction motions, defendant asserts that his conviction for first-degree murder and sentence of death should be set aside,” wrote Justice Phil Berger Jr. for the five-justice majority. “Defendant argues that despite the trial court’s finding that he failed to establish a prima facie case of purposeful discrimination in jury selection, he is nevertheless entitled to a new trial because newly discovered evidence, consisting of a continuing legal education handout and a statistical study, supports his claim.”

Defendant Russell William Tucker relied on a 1986 US Supreme Court case, Batson v. Kentucky, to challenge jury selection in his case.

“However, defendant failed to raise a Batson claim or otherwise argue purposeful discrimination on direct appeal from his original trial or in previous post-conviction proceedings,” Berger wrote. Tucker’s claim is “procedurally barred” under state law, the majority concluded.

“In 1996, Mr. Tucker, who is African American, was tried capitally, convicted of first-degree murder, and sentenced to death by an all-white jury,” Justice Anita Earls wrote in dissent. “While the case before us turns on the applicability of N.C.G.S. § 15A-1419(a)(1) and (3)’s procedural bar, this Court’s holding ultimately determines whether a trial court may reach the merits of Mr. Tucker’s Batson v. Kentucky claim and review the serious allegations Mr. Tucker makes regarding the jury selection procedures in his case.”

“Because I believe that Mr. Tucker’s motion for appropriate relief is not barred … and thus, should go forward, I dissent,” Earls added.

In the 5-2 cases, the state Supreme Court:

*affirmed the state Court of Appeals in Morris v. Rodeberg and rejected a constitutional challenge of state law regarding medical malpractice claims involving minors.

*reversed the Appeals Court in NC Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company v. Herring. The court’s majority said evidence in the case disputed lower courts’ findings that defendant Cassie Herring lived with her mother and stepfather and qualified for their auto insurance benefits.

*modified the Appeals Court’s decision in State v. Wilson. The court’s majority determined that a defendant was not entitled to a jury instruction for second-degree murder in his first-degree murder case.

*reversed the Appeals Court in State v. Beck. The court’s majority reinstated a defendant’s conviction for armed robbery.

Justices also split along party lines in Wynn v. Frederick. With two Republican justices recused, the court voted, 3-2, to reverse the Appeals Court. The three-justice majority determined that magistrates enjoy sovereign immunity against lawsuits.

In a seventh case, State v. Fritsche, Earls split from a 6-1 majority. The court’s majority affirmed a state Appeals Court decision denying a convicted sex offender’s request to avoid spending at least 10 years on North Carolina’s sex offender registry before seeking removal from that list.

The state Supreme Court has issued opinions in 51 cases in 2023. One of those cases produced a 3-3 split with no public release of justices’ votes.

Of the remaining 50 cases, three justices never dissented. Justice Trey Allen voted with the majority in all 49 cases he considered, with Berger (46 cases) and Justice Richard Dietz (45 cases) also voting consistently with the majority.

The other two Republicans on the high court, Chief Justice Paul Newby and Justice Tamara Barringer, voted with the majority in 49 of 50 cases.

The court’s newest justice, Riggs, voted with the majority in eight of 13 cases decided since October.

Meanwhile, Earls’ seven new dissents meant that she voted with the majority in just 24 of 50 cases in 2023.  

The state Supreme Court is scheduled to release opinions again on March 22.