Republicans in North Carolina like to justify their excesses by saying “Democrats did it, too.” Not only is that a lame excuse, but it’s usually false. For instance, Republicans claim Democrats gerrymandered before they did. That may be true, but Republicans took it to the extreme. Democrats never had veto proof majorities or 75% of the Congressional seats.
Now, Republicans seem poised to pack the North Carolina Supreme Court to offset Democrat Mike Morgan’s election to the Court. With his victory in November, Democrats hold a 4-3 advantage on the ostensibly nonpartisan court. The constitution says that the legislature can add up to nine justices. When the legislature goes into special session to provide hurricane relief next week, Republicans could add the seats and let Pat McCrory fill them before he leaves, giving the GOP a 5-4 advantage on the court.
Democrats are calling foul. Republicans, though, keep saying that Democrats packed the court in 2000. That’s not true. Democrats created three new seats on the Court of Appeals in the short session of 2000, not the Supreme Court. The seats were added because the court had seen a 30% increase in its caseload in just two years and the state was growing rapidly. They were also added before the election of 2000, not after it. There was a controversy but it wasn’t around whether the increase was needed. The dispute was whether the new justices would have to stand for election in the next election, like the constitution stipulates, or could serve until 2004 like the bill stated. The court decided that they had to run on 2002, the next election cycle.
In contrast, the Supreme Court’s caseload has gone down, not up, so that’s no reason to add new judges. A commission established by the Republican Chief Justice Mark Martin in 2015 to review the needs of the court has issued a statement saying the court doesn’t need more justices. Appointing two new justices now would be little more than a naked power grab.
The Supreme Court and Court of Appeals operate differently. The Supreme Court acts as a single body so partisan make up is relevant. The Court of Appeals never acts as a single body. They meet in three judge panels. So, comparing additional supreme court seats to appellate court seats is the epitome of false equivalency.
No, the Democrats didn’t pack the court in the 2000. Republicans who claim they did are not telling the truth. They’re just trying to justify their authoritarian instincts.
Republican legislators should be wary about this type of overreach. Because of their gerrymandering, 2017 is an election year. Redistricting for the third time in five years is already enough to remind voters that the GOP is rigging the system. Stealing the Supreme Court will certainly keep the Democratic base engaged for the rest of the year. In an election that will likely hinge on turnout, that’s not what Republicans want to do.