@NCCapitol

@NCCapitol

4th Circuit re-cancels 2018 judicial primaries

Posted February 9, 2018 1:52 p.m. EST
Updated February 9, 2018 2:12 p.m. EST

— North Carolina's judicial primaries are all off again after judges at the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday stayed the decision of a lower court.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles had un-canceled primaries in North Carolina's 2018 Supreme Court and Court of Appeals races, at least temporarily setting aside part of a decision the General Assembly made last October to cancel all judicial primaries this year.

Eagles, an Obama appointee to the bench, said in her decision that the legislature might justify eliminating primaries in local Superior Court and District Court races, since those races depend on district lines the legislature is redrawing now. Republican majority leaders have said they needed more time for that process than primaries would allow.

But Eagles reasoned there was "no showing of any governmental interest" to cancel primaries in statewide races because new districts lines would be irrelevant in those contests.

In a 2-1 decision Friday, 4th Circuit Judges Stephanie Thacker and Paul Niemeyer stayed Eagles' decision, siding with Republican leaders who sought the reversal. Thacker is an Obama appointee, and Niemeyer was appointed by President George H.W. Bush.

Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, a Clinton appointee, voted to deny the motion, according to the order issued Friday, which did not elaborate on the judges' reasoning.

Without primaries, candidates for judicial races will file for office in June instead of this month. Candidate filing in other races statewide begins Monday and runs through the end of the month.

The North Carolina Democratic Party sued over the canceled primaries, saying the move violated the party's right to select a nominee for the November general election.

Eagles agreed during proceedings that, without primaries, the Republican and Democratic parties have no way to designate their preferred candidates. Judicial candidates will be able to simply sign up as a Democrat or a Republican and appear on the ballot that way, even if they change their party registration the same day they file.

In canceling the 2018 primaries the legislature also did away with a requirement that candidates be registered as a member of a particular political party at least 90 days before running.

There are also concerns that, without primaries to winnow races down, general election ballots will be crowded, confusing voters and making it likely judges will win office without approaching 50 percent of the vote. Democrats have pointed out that this is likely to favor incumbents and that the one Supreme Court seat up this year, and two of three state Court of Appeals seats, are held by Republicans,

The Republican decision to cancel primaries is one of many changes the GOP majority has sought in the state's judiciary system over the last two years, and Democrats accuse them of trying to rig the state's courts.

"Republicans injected chaos into our elections and took away North Carolina voters right to vote in a primary election as part of an effort to rig our independent judiciary and elect more Republican judges," Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin said in a statement. "Today’s ruling is disappointing, but we are evaluating all further legal options available to protect the most fundamental right in our democracy – the right to vote."

Republicans have blasted Democrats for repeatedly filing lawsuits to block policy decisions that should be left to the legislature. Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, the GOP redistricting chairman for the House, said this week that Democrats are trying to "sue until North Carolina is blue."