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How NC judicial candidates plan to confront partisan perception on Supreme Court

Posted September 12, 2022 6:14 p.m. EDT
Updated September 13, 2022 8:08 a.m. EDT

Democratic North Carolina state Supreme Court Justice Sam Ervin IV, Democratic Court of Appeals Judge Lucy Inman, Republican Trey Allen and Republican Court of Appeals Judge Richard Dietz speak at a Sept. 9 candidate forum in Ralegh. They are running for the state Supreme Court in 2022. (photos by Bryan Anderson)

— A pair of North Carolina judicial seats up for grabs this year could affect how future elections are administered and which representatives voters can elect.

The candidates running for the state Supreme Court are hoping to present themselves as the middle-of-the-road solution to a body they worry has appeared increasingly political.

At events in Raleigh on Friday and in Cary on Monday, the four candidates vying for two seats—Republican Court of Appeals Judge Richard Dietz, Republican Trey Allen, Democratic Court of Appeals Judge Lucy Inman and Democratic state Supreme Court Justice Sam Ervin IV— made their case to voters why they think they’d be most fit to move the high court in a less ideological direction.

Allen, who was appointed last year as general counsel for the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts and is now running against Ervin, is most emphatically making the case for an apolitical judiciary that gives more deference to the will of state lawmakers and potentially revisits recent decisions from a Democratic-led court.

“Unlike, say, our state Court of Appeals, the North Carolina Supreme Court can overrule its own precedent,” Allen told a crowd of about 40 people during the Monday forum at the Umstead Hotel and Spa. “It’s not bound by its prior decisions.”

Ervin, meanwhile, touts support he’s received from two competing legal groups, the Advocates for Justice and Association of Defense Attorneys. The N.C. Defense Fund, the political action committee of the North Carolina Association of Defense Attorneys, has also endorsed Dietz over Inman.

“They oppose each other in court,” Ervin said of the two organizations during the Cary event. “And both of them have endorsed me because I think they believe they are confident that I will give their clients a fair and impartial hearing based on the record that I’ve got.”

Allen suggested he’s likelier than Ervin to give people a fair shake in court.

“Our judges have to resist the temptation to really abuse the power that they’ve been given to decide cases [and] go out and write laws,” Allen said during the Friday event. “What people are entitled to when they come to court is a judge who’s going to treat them the same way a judge would treat them in a case that involved the same facts.”

When the candidates were asked on Monday which U.S. Supreme Court justice their views most aligned with, Allen was the only state Supreme Court candidate to give a direct answer. He said his judicial philosophy is closest to the late U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia and also similar to current Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. Allen views Thomas as influential but less committed to established court precedent than he would be as a state Supreme Court justice.

“Judicial philosophy is not the same thing as politics,” Allen said. “In fact, judicial philosophy is intended to keep politics out of judging.”

Bypassing the Court of Appeals

Dietz and Inman are both appellate court judges who appear to be campaigning on a more moderate message than Allen. On Friday, Dietz and Inman appeared to take exception to the state Supreme Court’s recent moves to bypass the appellate court in recent high-profile cases.

“When the Supreme Court bypasses many cases and takes them from the Court of Appeals, it suggests to me that the Supreme Court doesn’t have enough of a workload because they’re taking more cases,” Inman said. “It suggests to me that the Supreme Court doesn’t think the case could be resolved at the Court of Appeals, and I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to bypass the Court of Appeals.”

Even so, Inman signaled a greater openness than Dietz to having the Supreme Court take up cases before it is heard in an appellate court. She cited election laws and other cases needing to be resolved within six months as key factors.

Dietz said he’d consider bypassing the Court of Appeals if it is clear the matter would ultimately end up before the Supreme Court and has a very strong reason for being decided immediately. He said the high court should work harder to more quickly address cases involving people who are potentially wrongfully incarcerated.

“Our current Supreme Court is taking cases from the Court of Appeals at an unprecedented rate, and not the kinds of cases that I just described that need to be heard,” he said. “I don’t think the court is taking them because they’re not busy enough.”

Perception of partisanship

North Carolina’ s high court has taken on a number of contentious issues in the past year, including drawing of legislative and congressional lines. When a new state congressional district map is drawn, the state Supreme Court’s makeup could determine how evenly North Carolinians are represented politically.

On Monday, the state Supreme Court announced it would take up a similarly contentious voter ID case in October—weeks before an election could reshape the balance of a court. Like many times in the past year and a half, the vote split along ideological lines with four Democrats supportive and three Republicans opposed. All four candidates in the state Supreme Court race insist they have the track record needed to bolster the court’s integrity.

“A pattern of judges and justices voting together in lockstep suggests they are not acting as independently as they need to be,” Inman said Friday. “… I am prepared to collaborate but also to honestly discuss differences and to help make decisions that find common ground narrowly rather than making radical change so we can have the stability that our democracy requires of our Supreme Court.”

On Monday, Allen told voters: “The judicial branch relies on the trust of the public for its authority. It doesn’t have the enforcement power of the executive branch. It doesn’t have the power of the purse. If a critical mass of the public ever comes to believe that our state Supreme Court bases its decisions in politically-charged cases more [sic] on the law than on the politics, our justice system will not endure. We need justices who are going to follow the law in every case and leave their politics aside.”

Dietz said Friday he’d advocate for making the courtroom more accessible, particularly to individuals who can’t afford to navigate a complex legal system. “The judge’s role is to defend our constitutional rights, protect the rule of law and help people resolve their legal disputes fairly, and that’s it,” he said.

Ervin said his record as a current Supreme Court justice and former appellate court judge demonstrates his fitness to continue serving.

“I do not hesitate to take any particular party’s side in a particular case because I think that party is correct,” he said. “I think that’s what the law requires, and therefore, I do it. I’ve done that even in what can be described as politically charged cases on several different occasions. Ultimately, the success of a court depends upon the perception of fairness and impartiality of that court.”

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