RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The two North Carolina Supreme Court seats up for election in November have taken on extra significance as the outcome could flip the court's partisan makeup during a period of political polarization.
Registered Democrats hold a 4-3 advantage on the court, but Republicans would retake the majority for the first time since 2016 should they win at least one race. The seats carry eight-year terms, so barring unplanned retirements, Republicans would be assured of keeping the upper hand for at least 4 1/2 years if successful.
Outside groups are spending big to influence the races. In the two largest television markets alone, two super PACs have committed spending roughly $3 million on ads, according to documents filed with the Federal Communications Commission.
In keeping with nonjudicial elections this year, ads have focused on crime and abortion.
North Carolina is among a handful of states with intense high court races after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision giving states the power to decide the legality of abortion. Abortions are legal in North Carolina through 20 weeks of pregnancy — with some health exceptions afterward — making the state an option for women from more restrictive states nearby.
Court of Appeals Judges Richard Dietz, a Republican, and Lucy Inman, a Democrat, are looking to succeed retiring Associate Justice Robin Hudson. And Associate Justice Sam Ervin IV, a Democrat, is seeking reelection against Republican Trey Allen, currently general counsel for the state court system.
State Republican Party materials label Allen and Dietz as “conservative judges.” And at a recent Democratic Party rally, Gov. Roy Cooper urged Inman and Ervin's election “because they are going to be fair and follow the law.”
In interviews, the four candidates offered commitments of ruling without partisan and ideological agendas if elected.
“My vote in each case will be based on my best understanding of the law and the facts, and my personal politics would not enter into the equation," Allen said.
Ervin, the grandson of late Watergate committee chairman Sen. Sam Ervin Jr., said he's already met that standard during his appellate career, calling himself “pretty allergic to ideological labels.”
Beyond usual legal conflicts, justices could hear challenges to policies enacted by a Republican-controlled General Assembly that could earn veto-proof majorities in November. Those could include legislation on voting, guns and abortion that Cooper has stopped by threatened or actual vetoes since 2019. Lawmakers also must redraw congressional districts, which aren’t subject to veto.
North Carolina Republican leaders plan to consider further restrictions on abortion in 2023 but haven’t reached a consensus.
The liberal-leaning North Carolina Families First PAC jumped on the abortion issue, running a television ad accusing Allen and Dietz of having “extreme views” that “could allow lawmakers to criminalize abortions, forcing women and girls to give birth.”
Judges and judicial candidates are subject to rules designed to ensure impartiality on issues they could rule on. Allen and Dietz said they would approach any case without presumptions on how they’d rule.
“When I see ads like that, I am disappointed because I think it is reinforcing this idea to the public that judges have already made up their minds,” Dietz said.
Commercials from the outside group Stop Liberal Judges contend one ruling written by Inman and another agreed to by Ervin that blocked certain convicted child sex offenders from being tracked electronically for decades are proof they're "not protecting our children."
Inman, who joined the Court of Appeals in early 2015 and ran unsuccessfully for Supreme Court in 2020, called them a "false and misleading smear” that belies her record as both a trial and appellate judge.
“It is wrong and the antithesis of the law to exploit child victims for political gain,” she said.
The elections come near the end of a two-year court term marked by several high-profile split decisions — favoring the Democratic majority — involving redistricting, voter ID and criminal justice cases.
Democratic politicians and allies have praised such majority opinions as victories for equality and justice. Dissenting opinions from Republican justices have been acerbic at times, accusing the other side of judicial activism.
“It has been a very difficult and challenging term of court,” former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr said.
While not speaking about specific cases, Ervin pushed back on the idea that partisanship has seeped through majority opinions.
"To say that a group of people who votes together are voting for partisan purposes is not really a fair accusation in the absence of some showing that the decision that’s under consideration was not legally supported,” said Ervin, who if reelected would have to step down in late 2027 for mandatory retirement at age 72.
Allen and Dietz have highlighted the court's perceived public image.
“I’ve become increasingly concerned about what I believe is a growing public perception that the court is acting or has been acting more as a political body than as a legal body,” said Allen, who as general counsel works under Republican Chief Justice Paul Newby.
Dietz said he's never written a dissenting opinion since joining the Court of Appeals in 2014, which reflects his willingness to work with colleagues.
“How you get stronger decisions and also how you reassure the public that justice is being done is by bringing people together and reaching that result that everyone agrees on,” Dietz said.
Inman said there's been good reason for her dissenting opinions, some of which were ultimately adopted by the Supreme Court.
“It’s better to have experience knowing when you have to stand up for the law, and going along to get along does not serve that purpose,” she said.
Gary D. Robertson, The Associated Press