The N.C. Supreme Court has granted a “temporary stay” blocking an Appeals Court ruling in the case of now-repealed election districts for Mecklenburg County judges.
Without comment, the high court issued the stay Wednesday. Justices made that decision one day after plaintiffs requested it. The Supreme Court’s action will have no impact on current Mecklenburg County judicial elections. But it could help determine the fate of $165,000 in lawyers’ fees.
Plaintiffs are challenging a unanimous Feb. 1 ruling from a three-judge panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals. Appellate judges agreed to throw out the case. The appellate panel also determined that a three-judge Superior Court panel had made a mistake in awarding lawyers’ fees.
The case started when plaintiffs challenged a 2018 state law. It converted all of Mecklenburg’s 21 District Court judicial elections from countywide races to races falling under eight new districts. State Rep. Kelly Alexander, D-Mecklenburg, joined with two District Court judges, a former judge, and two other Mecklenburg voters to file suit against the plan.
“The statute was passed over Governor [Roy] Cooper’s veto message which stated, ‘The legislative attempts to rig the courts by reducing the people’s vote hurts justice. Piecemeal attempts to target judges create unnecessary confusion and show contempt for North Carolina’s judiciary,’” according to a document filed Tuesday with the N.C. Supreme Court.
“It was enacted after the 2018 filing period had begun, and judges who had filed to run at large had to refile in judicial racially gerrymandered sub-districts,” the filing claimed. “The statute allocated some judges to 2-member districts and others to 3-member districts. This racial stigmatization damaged the Plaintiffs. Among the many examples is Judge [Donald] Cureton, an African American incumbent who had previously won at-large elections in Mecklenburg County, lost the 2018 election when he was placed in a predominately white district.”
A legal agreement in November 2019 blocked use of the districting plan for the 2020 election. Then the General Assembly repealed the law in July 2020.
Plaintiffs continued to push their case, but a trial court panel dismissed the lawsuit as moot. Two months later, the panel awarded plaintiffs $165,000 in attorneys’ fees.
“Here, the original question in controversy, whether the judicial districts in Mecklenburg County were constitutional, was addressed when the General Assembly repealed that portion of the law and reverted to countywide elections in Mecklenburg County,” wrote Judge Jeff Carpenter on Feb. 1 for the unanimous Appeals Court. “Likewise, Plaintiffs’ request for dissolution of the judicial districts was also granted by the repeal. Plaintiffs’ argument that declaratory relief should be granted to put the General Assembly on notice is unpersuasive considering precedent clearly states the actions taken by the General Assembly render discussion of the repealed law’s constitutionality moot.”
Appellate judges rejected the argument that the case should continue because of the “public interest” in having the repealed law declared unconstitutional.
“[T]here is no underlying controversy between Plaintiffs and Defendants and no risk of further claims arising as the law in question has been repealed,” Carpenter wrote. “Moreover, even where there may be grave issues of constitutional concern, this Court will not except a case from the mootness doctrine solely to render an advisory opinion. This is particularly the case where the General Assembly has acted to address those constitutional concerns.”
Carpenter and fellow Judges Allegra Collins and Toby Hampson also agreed that the Superior Court panel did not have jurisdiction to award attorneys’ fees in the case. They ordered the case to return to a single Superior Court judge. That judge would determine whether the plaintiffs’ can collect any fees.
Now the state Supreme Court’s ruling blocks the appellate judges’ decision. There’s no word on when the high court will take further action.