A Guide to NC Supreme Court Elections

by | Aug 13, 2018 | 2018 elections, Features, History, NC Political Geography, News

North Carolina’s judicial system consists of three distinct divisions – the Appellate Division, the Superior Court Division, and the District Court Division. Judges in all three branches are elected directly by the people, and while the latter two consist of trial courts with judges elected from individual districts, the Appellate Division – which settles only questions of law – sees its judges elected on a statewide basis. The Appellate Division consists of two distinct courts, the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals.

The North Carolina Supreme Court has existed in some form since the state’s Constitution of 1776, with its justices first elected through popular vote as a result of the Constitution of 1868. Since 1937, the court has consisted of seven justices, each of whom are elected to staggered eight-year terms with at least one seat up for election every even-numbered year. If a justice resigns, reaches mandatory retirement age, or otherwise leaves office prematurely, the governor appoints a replacement and a new election is held in the November of the next even-numbered year. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court occupies a distinct seat, with new Chief Justices generally elected or appointed from the existing pool of Associate Justices.

The following timeline, created by Politics NC, displays the name and party of each justice to have served on the North Carolina Supreme Court since 1967:

The last fifty years have seen a number of milestones on the court – its first female justice, Susie Sharp, was elected Chief Justice in 1974, and its first black justice, Henry Frye, was appointed to the same position by Governor Hunt in 1999.

The Supreme Court has also undergone a massive political realignment, representing North Carolina’s shift from a one-party state to a battleground. In 1985, Governor Martin appointed Rhoda Billings to serve as the court’s first Republican justice in contemporary history, and although she lost her reelection bid shortly after being appointed Chief Justice in 1986, her party’s presence on the court had only just begun. In 1994, two Republicans – Robert Orr and I. Beverly Lake, Jr. – each defeated Democratic incumbents to join the court, and by 2003, the GOP’s newfound strength in North Carolina had earned it all but one of the court’s seven seats.

Concerned that voters were beginning to favor Republicans over Democrats in partisan judicial elections, the state’s then-Democratic General Assembly made judicial elections nonpartisan ahead of the 2004 cycle. Democratic candidates made some gains in the succeeding nonpartisan elections, although the GOP took control of the General Assembly in 2010. With Justice Bob Edmunds (R) facing a competitive reelection bid in 2016, GOP legislators attempted to help their incumbent by switching the Supreme Court to a retention election system in which voters would simply decide whether or not to retain Edmunds for another term. The Supreme Court blocked the proposed change, and after Edmunds’ loss in 2016 gave Democrats their first majority on the court since 1998, Republican legislators opted instead to make Supreme Court elections partisan again ahead of the 2018 cycle.

The following maps, compiled by Politics NC, depict the results of the most recent eight-year Supreme Court election cycle, including the seven Supreme Court elections in 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016:

Barbara Jackson (R) – 51.86%

Robert C. Hunter (D) – 48.14%

          The retirement of GOP Associate Justice Edward Brady after one full term on the Supreme Court prompted two Court of Appeals judges, Barbara Jackson and Robert C. Hunter, to seek his seat. This nonpartisan election bore little resemblance to most between Democrats and Republicans – Jackson carried many of the state’s generally Democratic urban counties (Cumberland, Forsyth, Mecklenburg, Wake, Pitt), while Hunter, a McDowell County native, won many rural counties in western North Carolina traditionally loyal to the GOP. Jackson performed best, however, throughout GOP stronghold counties in the western Piedmont and on the coast, while Hunter carried most of the strongly Democratic counties on the Coastal Plain. Ultimately, Jackson prevailed statewide by a narrow margin, likely due to the GOP’s overall strength in the same year Republicans took control of the General Assembly.

Paul Newby (R) – 51.90%

Samuel Ervin, IV (D) – 48.10%

          Associate Justice Paul Newby sought his second full term on the Supreme Court, having first won his seat in a 2004 special election prompted by the resignation of Associate Justice Robert Orr. Newby narrowly fended off a challenge from then-Court of Appeals Judge Samuel Ervin, IV (grandson of the senator), who would go on to win a different seat on the Supreme Court two years later. Although this race was nonpartisan, the electoral map much more closely resembles traditional partisan coalitions than did the 2010 Supreme Court race – Ervin performed well on the Coastal Plain and in urban areas, while Newby dominated in coastal areas, the western Piedmont, and the Foothills. However, Newby also carried the urban Wake County, while Ervin won a number of rural counties in western North Carolina near his native Morganton.

Mark Martin (R) – 72.24%

Ola Lewis (R) – 27.76%

          In September 2014, Governor Pat McCrory appointed Associate Justice Mark Martin to the Chief Justice’s seat following the mandatory retirement of Chief Justice Sarah Parker (D). Democrats failed to recruit a candidate to retake Parker’s seat in the November election – Martin sported a formidable resume, having been first elected to the Court of Appeals in 1994 and to the Supreme Court in 1998. Instead, Martin’s only opposition came from fellow Republican Ola Lewis, a Superior Court judge from Brunswick County. Martin, a veteran of three successful statewide judicial elections, dominated in his bid for a full term as Chief Justice – Lewis, herself an African American, won only three predominantly African American counties in northeastern North Carolina and an additional two in her Superior Court district.

Samuel Ervin, IV (D) – 52.60%

Robert N. Hunter (R) – 47.40%

          Following Governor Pat McCrory’s appointment of Mark Martin as Chief Justice in September 2014, Martin’s Associate Justice seat was vacated, allowing McCrory to appoint Court of Appeals judge Robert N. Hunter (no relation to Democratic Court of Appeals judge Robert C. Hunter) as a replacement. In his bid for a full term on the Supreme Court, Hunter was challenged by Court of Appeals judge Samuel Ervin, IV, who himself had unsuccessfully run for the Supreme Court in 2012. Despite a poor national environment for Democrats in 2014, Ervin prevailed by a sound margin, dominating in traditionally Democratic strongholds on the Coastal Plain and in urban areas. Ervin, a Burke County native, also performed exceptionally well in the Hickory metropolitan area, traditionally one of the GOP’s best regions statewide. Hunter, meanwhile, carried only GOP strongholds on the coast and in the western Piedmont, Foothills, and Mountains.

Robin Hudson (D) – 42.56%

Eric Levinson (R) – 36.57%

Jeanette Doran (R) – 20.87%

          In the only Supreme Court race in 2014 with more than two candidates, a nonpartisan primary was held in May to determine which two contenders would advance to the general election in November. Incumbent Associate Justice Robin Hudson – who had been elected to the Court of Appeals in 2000 and to the Supreme Court in 2006 – was challenged by Eric Levinson, a Superior Court judge who had previously served on the Court of Appeals, and Jeanette Doran, chair of the North Carolina Division of Employment Security Board of Review. Hudson and Levinson, both of whom had previously won statewide campaigns, were each supported by the basic electoral coalitions of their respective parties, while Doran’s support was concentrated mainly in coastal counties (she won only Carteret).

Robin Hudson (D) – 52.46%

Eric Levinson (R) – 47.54%

          In the general election, Hudson defied the national political environment in 2014 to prevail by a substantial margin, carrying virtually all of the state’s Democratic-leaning and competitive counties as well as a few solidly Republican ones (notably Rowan). Levinson’s support, meanwhile, was largely confined to traditionally Republican counties on the coast and in the western Piedmont, Foothills, and Mountains.

Cheri Beasley (D) – 50.11%

Mike Robinson (R) – 49.89%

          Associate Justice Cheri Beasley sought a full term on the Supreme Court after being appointed by Governor Beverly Perdue in December 2012 to fill the seat vacated by Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson. Beasley had previously served on the Court of Appeals after defeating an incumbent Republican in the 2008 election. Beasley was challenged by Mike Robinson, a well-known attorney later appointed to the North Carolina Business Court (a subset of the Superior Court division). In what became the closest statewide judicial race of 2014, Beasley prevailed by only slightly more than five thousand votes, allowing Robinson to request a recount that ultimately had no significant impact upon the results. Both candidates performed relatively well among their respective parties’ electoral coalitions, with the above map resembling a fairly generic result for a nonpartisan race between a Democrat and a Republican.

Robert Edmunds (R) – 48.01%

Michael Morgan (D) – 34.36%

Sabra Faires (U) – 12.04%

Daniel Robertson (D) – 5.59%

          Associate Justice Robert Edmunds sought his third full term on the Supreme Court, having previously been elected by narrow margins in 2000 and 2008. Edmunds had earlier served on the Court of Appeals after defeating a Democratic incumbent in 1998. Republicans in the General Assembly, fearing a loss of their narrow 4-3 majority on the Supreme Court, proposed a new retention election system for Supreme Court seats in which voters would decide simply whether or not to retain incumbent justices rather than choose between candidates. The new system would presumably increase Edmunds’ likelihood of winning another term, and even if voters chose not to retain him, Republican Governor Pat McCrory would be able to appoint a replacement after the election. The Supreme Court blocked the retention proposal (Edmunds recused himself from the decision), allowing for the judicial election to take place as scheduled. Edmunds’ challengers included attorney Sabra Faires, who filed the lawsuit against the retention proposal, as well as Wake County Superior Court judge Michael Morgan and attorney Daniel Robertson.

In the nonpartisan primary election (postponed until June due to the lawsuit), Edmunds received the unified support of the GOP base, while Morgan received the support of most Democrats and neither Faires nor Robertson gained major traction. Edmunds won the vast majority of counties, including a number in which Democratic voters were split between his opponents and allowed him to garner a plurality of votes. Morgan, meanwhile, performed best in the Triangle and the predominantly African American counties of northeastern North Carolina, although he also performed unexpectedly well in traditionally Republican portions of western North Carolina and the Wilmington metropolitan area.

Michael Morgan (D) – 54.47%

Robert Edmunds (R) – 45.53%

          Edmunds began the general election as a supposed favorite, with three successful statewide elections under his belt and a sizeable lead over Morgan in the primary. Elections for the Supreme Court, however, were still nonpartisan in 2016, while the Republican-controlled General Assembly had recently made elections for the Court of Appeals partisan. Moreover, the General Assembly had enacted a rule placing candidates from the party of the incumbent governor (then Republican Pat McCrory) first on the ballot in partisan races, while ballot order in nonpartisan races was still randomized (Morgan was selected for the top spot). Thus, many suggest that GOP voters, having selected the first name on the ballot in each partisan Court of Appeals race, also selected Morgan in the nonpartisan Supreme Court race due to his ballot placement above Edmunds. This is evidenced by Morgan’s unexpected victory in forty-two GOP counties where none of the Democratic Court of Appeals candidates had won. Morgan’s victory gave Democrats a 4-3 majority on the court, their first since 1998.

The following map displays each county’s general party preference over the course of the seven Supreme Court elections of the last eight-year cycle. Counties colored blue supported Democratic general election candidates in at least four of the seven elections, while counties colored red supported Republican general election candidates in at least four of the seven elections. A darker shade indicates a county supported candidates of one party in a greater number of elections:

The map reflects the general electoral coalitions of each party relatively well – Democrats performed best in urban counties and the diverse rural counties of the Coastal Plain, while Republicans performed best on the coast and in the rural counties of the western Piedmont, the Foothills, and the Mountains. Notably, Democrats also performed well in a number of typically Republican counties in western North Carolina, as Burke County native Samuel Ervin, IV was the Democratic general election candidate in two of the seven elections and McDowell County native Robert C. Hunter was the Democratic general election candidate in a third. No county voted for a Democrat in all seven elections, as the 2014 Chief Justice election featured only two Republicans.

This year, Associate Justice Barbara Jackson is running for her second full term in office. Democrat Anita Earls, a civil rights attorney who founded the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, has emerged as her main opponent. Hoping to avoid another iteration of the Morgan-Edmunds race and improve Jackson’s chances of reelection, the General Assembly passed legislation after the 2016 election making Supreme Court races partisan. In 2017, however, the General Assembly also passed legislation eliminating judicial primaries for 2018, allowing multiple candidates identified with each party to appear on the general election ballot. Many interpreted the change as an attempt by the GOP to put multiple Democratic candidates on the ballot and split the Democratic vote in judicial elections, allowing Jackson and other Republicans to win their races. This was evidenced by flyers dispersed by a pro-GOP group encouraging Democrats to file for judicial contests.

Although no other Democrats ended up filing in the race between Jackson and Earls, another Republican did – Chris Anglin, a Raleigh lawyer who was until recently registered as a Democrat. GOP legislators interpreted Anglin’s candidacy as an attempt to split the Republican vote and elect Earls over Jackson, passing legislation to remove Anglin’s Republican label from the ballot due to his recent change in party identification. Anglin filed a lawsuit against the General Assembly for their decision, threatening to drop out of the race unless his party label is kept on the ballot. A Superior Court judge issued an injunction ordering the state to delay printing ballots unless the party identifications of Anglin and a local judicial candidate in a similar situation are maintained, although it is unclear if GOP leaders will seek to appeal the decision.

The General Assembly has also proposed a constitutional amendment to transfer the power to fill future judicial vacancies – including those on the Supreme Court – from the governor to the General Assembly itself. The amendment, in conjunction with the GOP’s longtime plan to increase the size of the Supreme Court from seven justices to nine, would further allow Republicans in the General Assembly to select two additional justices for the court and give the GOP a 5-4 majority with no direct input from voters. Governor Roy Cooper has filed a lawsuit to block the amendment (and another one removing his power to appoint members of boards and commissions) from appearing on voters’ ballots this November, backed in his opposition to the pair of proposed changes by all five of North Carolina’s living former governors.

Be on the lookout for our next feature focusing on elections for the North Carolina Court of Appeals.


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