It's April 13, and the N.C. Supreme Court is in session in Raleigh. The seven justices enter their courtroom in solemn fashion, taking their seats behind the walnut-paneled bench. Chief Justice Mark Martin, a Republican, is in the center. The six associate justices are divided equally between Republicans and Democrats, giving the Republicans a 4–3 majority. Does their party affiliation matter? It's not supposed to. And yet ...
Scheduled for argument today: Faires v. State Board of Elections. Tellingly, it's a case about Supreme Court elections. It's simple on its face. But look again: there's the full tangle of politics that has our state tied in knots.
When the case is called, Republican Justice Bob Edmunds gets up and leaves without explanation. No need. Edmunds has recused himself, and everyone in the court knows why: Faires, among other things, is about him.
At issue is a change enacted last year by the Republican-dominated General Assembly. It was designed to let Edmunds, whose eight-year term expires in December, run for "re-election" in 2016 assured that no other candidate could run against him.
How? By allowing him to choose a "retention election," a system never before used in North Carolina. The new law offered this option only to sitting Supreme Court justices who had been elected previously. Edmunds fit the bill; he was elected in 2000 and 2008. So did GOP justices Barbara Jackson and Paul Newby, whose terms will expire in 2018 and 2020. In a retention election, the only choice is whether to keep the incumbent. If not, the governor would appoint a replacement.
Obviously, lawmakers wanted to keep the Supreme Court in Republican hands.
The plaintiffs in Faires, however—including Raleigh attorney Sabra Jean Faires—argued that the law violated the state constitution, which requires that judges be elected in real elections. That was the legal question. Faires was a potential candidate against Edmunds. Was her right to run protected by the constitution?
But there was also a political question that hung over the courtroom: Could these justices be trusted to set politics aside?
The good news, now that we know how Faires came out, is that the Republican scheme was indeed struck down, though not by the Supreme Court.
Consequently, Edmunds has been forced to run in a real election, beginning with a primary on June 7, against three opponents: Faires, who deserves consideration if for no other reason than that her lawsuit is the reason we're having an election; Michael Morgan, a top-rated Wake County Superior Court judge; and Daniel Robertson, a little-known Davie County bank attorney.
The top two finishers will face off in November. Edmunds, the only Republican in the field, is almost certain to be one of them.
If you don't want the court to remain under GOP control, you have options: Faires, an unaffiliated voter, or Morgan, a Democrat. (Robertson is also a Democrat.)
It's a choice you probably didn't know you have, in an election that you may not have known is happening. But it is happening, and it's as important an election for the future of North Carolina as any that will be on the ballot this year.