@NCCapitol

@NCCapitol

Judge reinstates judicial primaries for NC Supreme Court, Court of Appeals

Posted January 31, 2018 3:20 p.m. EST
Updated January 31, 2018 9:30 p.m. EST

NC redistricting

— A federal judge weighing the Republican legislative majority's decision to cancel this year's judicial primaries ordered them reinstated Wednesday for statewide Supreme Court and Court of Appeals races.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles said primaries for trial court seats can remain canceled. Her logic: Republican legislators who called off the primaries in a vote last fall advanced a reason for doing so in local Superior Court and District Court races.

When they announced the move, GOP leaders said they were doing away with the primaries just for this year in order to give themselves more time to redraw judicial districts, a process still going on with just weeks before the Feb. 12 opening of candidate filing for primary races. But Court of Appeals judges and state Supreme Court justices are elected statewide and won't be effected by redistricting.

"The defendants have offered a legitimate governmental interest in this change as to elections of superior and district court judges," Eagles wrote in her order. "The defendants have made no showing of any governmental interest supporting the abolishment of a mechanism to narrow the field in partisan appellate judicial races, as those judges are elected statewide and are not subject to redistricting."

Republican leaders blasted the decision, noting Eagles was appointed to the bench by former President Barack Obama and accusing her of "once again injecting chaos and confusion into North Carolina elections at the eleventh hour." Eagles is also part of the three judge panel that, unanimously, threw out Republican drawn legislative districts in a case that has not quite run its full course.

"This law was passed in October, and candidates interested in running for judicial office understood they still had several months to organize campaigns and make a final decision," state Rep. David Lewis and state Sen. Ralph Hise, chairmen of their respective chambers redistricting efforts said Wenesday in a joint statement. "But because of the court’s interference, they now have less than two weeks to decide. This is a highly partisan ruling by a Democratic judge, and we are evaluating our legal options.”

Eagles granted the state Democratic Party and others who sued in this case a partial preliminary injunction. She did not decide the entire case but indicated in her order that canceling primaries in the statewide judicial races without providing another way to winnow down the candidates on general election ballots is "likely unconstitutional."

Part of her reasoning is that that the parties will have no way to keep candidates completely opposed to their ideals from running under their banner. The General Assembly reinstituted partisan primaries in judicial elections with votes taken in 2016 and 2017. In canceling them for 2018, 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 as a member of that party.

The way judicial elections were planned this year, a "candidate could change from Republican or unaffiliated to Democrat on the day of filing, and the candidate would then be listed on the ballot as a Democrat," Eagles wrote. That remains the case in District Court and Superior Court races, but Eagles reasoned that these races are less likely to draw so many candidates and produce the lengthy, voter-confusing ballots feared in the statewide Supreme Court and Court of Appeals races.

The Supreme Court seat and two of those Court of Appeals seats are held by Republicans, and Democrats have argued that crowded ballots would favor incumbents. Candidates are not required to win 50 percent of the vote to win these elections, only to get the most votes.

Eagles heard arguments in the case last week. The state Democratic Party had pushed to reinstate all of the primaries, while Republican legislative leaders opposed the move.

"Restoring people’s right to vote in primaries for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals is an important victory, but we believe that same right should have been extended to our lower courts as well," Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin said in a statement Wednesday.

There was no immediate word whether the Republican defendants in the case would appeal the ruling.