Governor Cooper is not known for booming rhetoric, and in the same quiet way that he might deliver his speeches he has gone about dramatically shifting the balance of the North Carolina judiciary.
Yesterday, Governor Cooper appointed North Carolina Court of Appeals Judge Mark Davis to fill the seat left vacant by (now Chief) Justice Cheri Beasley, whom he last month appointed to lead the North Carolina Supreme Court. Both Davis and Beasley, of course, are Democrats.
Though from the onset of his administration this may not have seemed a likely outcome, Governor Cooper has been able to dramatically affect the makeup of our state courts. In the North Carolina Supreme Court, Democrats now enjoy a 6-1 majority. Three of those seven seats will be up for election in 2020.
In the North Carolina Court of Appeals, Republicans hold an 8-6 advantage, but that is fleeting. Judge — or should we say Justice — Davis’s promotion will leave an opening on the Court of Appeals, allowing Governor Cooper to install another Democrat. Judge Robert Hunter, a Republican, is set to resign on the last day of March, leaving the Governor yet another opening to tilt the Court of Appeals 8-7 in favor of Democrats.
It’s a good time to be a Democrat with a law degree in North Carolina.
As Darren Janz, a PoliticsNC contributor, noted in an update to our 2020 Candidate Tracker via Twitter, Democrats will control both state appellate courts for the first time since 1998. It is important to note, as he added, that Cooper’s appointments will be up for reelection in 2020. All told, on the ballot in 2020 will be three NC Supreme Court races and five NC Court of Appeals races. Local boards of election should begin saving money for extra pens now; that’s going to be a lot of bubbles to fill.
Recall that in the 2018 election, Republicans put onto the ballot six constitutional amendments, not-so-thinly veiled to either drive up turnout or grab powers from the executive branch. One of those proposed amendments was “to provide for nonpartisan judicial merit commissions” to fill vacancies on the courts between elections. The governor has carte blanche in the process, and that just didn’t sit well with the Republicans in the legislature. Their proposed amendment would create a convoluted process whereby the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tem of the Senate would send the Governor two names from which to choose. Voters saw through the ruse and defeated both the judicial vacancies and another power grab amendment related to boards and commissions.
Really, this is poetic justice. Had the Republican ploy been successful, they would have had the ability to insert their preferred candidates onto the state courts, at least until 2020. Instead, voters chose correctly to reject their too-clever-by-half scheme and now there are more Democrats on the bench than Tim Moore or Phil Berger could shake a stick at. Of course, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
But, with Democrats reveling in their recent judicial gains, The Usual Suspects on Twitter were quick to offer what in certain circles may pass for wry observations:
Strangely, I have seen no arguments from the usual suspects on #NCPOL that in a “50/50 state” it’s wrong to have a state Supreme Court that is so lopsided toward one party. Where is @CommonCauseNC on this? Weird. https://t.co/2yXSwBcvN3— Brent Woodcox (@BrentWoodcox) March 11, 2019
What Democrats have against lopsided congressional and legislative districts does not mirror what happens in a statewide election, unless Republicans have managed to annex parts of the Lesser Carolina under the dark of night to pack more reliable conservative votes into the Tar Heel State. Perhaps, it’s fairer to say that elections have consequences, and North Carolinians chose a Democrat to lead this state with the understanding that he gets to replace judges when they retire. The vox populi has spoken, and I for one am truly aghast that Republicans are turning a deaf ear.
Though the GOP has fought hard against Governor Cooper, attempting legislative power grabs and even trying to amend the state constitution to dilute his power, he remains our chief executive. With momentum behind Democrats heading into 2020, Republicans can either continue trying to erect hurdles or start playing ball.
Kirk Kovach is a native North Carolinian interested in writing about politics, communication and culture.