Jeopardizing public trust in N.C. Courts impartiality

Published December 9, 2021


The current turmoil over the status of congressional and legislative elections – and the gerrymandering of election districts that is at the heart of the matter – is threatening public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of our state’s courts.

Some partisan players, such as Republican state Sen. Paul Newton, have been quick to complain about some judges while lauding others. He is highlighting the state’s unfortunate return to politically partisan election of judges -- Republican reimposedstarting in 2015. Since then, the Republican-dominated legislature has turned aside several ground-breaking reforms that provided for non-partisan judicial elections and public funding of judicial campaigns.

Newton, legislative leader Phil Berger’s lieutenant for gerrymandering matters, wasn’t happy early Monday when a three-judge North Carolina Court of Appeals panel ordered a temporary stop to candidate filings for congressional and legislative offices amid challenges to the maps drawn for election districts.

“In less than three hours, a secret panel of three unidentified Court of Appeals judges was able to review nearly 1,000 pages challenging maps of 184 districts, read the entire ‘record,’ and block candidate filing in every county in the state,” he complained via Twitter. 

A mere six hours later an appeal to the full 15-judge state Court of Appeals, similarly not identified as to the positions taken by the judges, reversed the earlier order. Newton took to Twitter to hail the action. “Common sense prevailed with the full NC Court of Appeals reversing this morning's decision. I am not surprised by the full-court’s decision. Our process was the most transparent in NC’s history.  I applaud the court's appropriate judicial review.”

 There is no difference between what the public knew about the way either of the two decisions was reached – other than one wasn’t to Newton’s liking while the other one lined up with his prejudice. Newton clearly didn’t feel that the earlier opinion reflected his GOP leanings.

 We don’t know the identity of the three judges on the initial panel, according to the order that was released. Nor do we know who the judges were that made up the “majority of judges of the Court” that reversed the 3-judge panel’s earlier order.

We don’t know who, or the political affiliations of, the initial three judge panel.

But we do know that:

*    It was lawyers for the Republican legislative leaders and the state GOP who appealed the 3-judge panel’s order to the full state Court of Appeals.
*    Court of Appeals Chief Judge Donna Stroud is a Republican as is a majority of the judges on the state Court of Appeals. They were elected in partisan elections.

Since 2011 when Republican’s took control of the General Assembly they have worked to make state government and the courts more partisan – and bend rules in favor of the GOP and even look to draw judicial districts to favor Republican candidates for local judgeships.

While this may be politically expedient, it is a slippery slope to where those seeking a fair hearing in our courts will come to see them only as places where justice is determined more on political affiliation than an impartial application of the law.

The Republican-led effort reimposed partisan judicial elections and did away with public-funding of formerly non-partisan Court of Appeals and Supreme Court elections.

In late 2016, in a series of Republican-initiated laws aimed at weakening then newly-elected Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, state statutes were changed to allow the full state Court of Appeals to review certain decisions by a 3-judge Appeals Court panel – such as those involving the drawing of election districts. Prior to that law, challenges of actions by the 3-judge panel went directly to the state Supreme Court.

As Republican legislators now jockey for how legal challenges to their gerrymandering of elections districts are handled, it only shines a brighter light on their efforts to politicize the courts.

To whatever degree Republicans may look to point fingers and complain about partisanship in our state’s courts, they have only to look in the mirror.

It was a mistake when they did away with the strong movement toward a non-partisan judiciary in North Carolina and their actions now only work to weaken the public’s trust that they’ll find justice in North Carolina’s courts.