Faced with defeat, North Carolina Republicans want to change the rules

The power-hungry Republicans in North Carolina have undermined the governor and now look to influence the courts

Published October 19, 2017 4:23PM (EDT)

Roy Cooper   (Reuters/Jonathan Drake)
Roy Cooper (Reuters/Jonathan Drake)

Republicans in North Carolina hold a strong grip on the state legislature and have sought to limit the powers of the Democratic governor, as well as institute strict voting laws, presumably to prevent further Democratic wins at the ballot box. But after several recent rejections in the courts, the GOP in the Tar Heel state has shifted its agenda to seize control of the judiciary.

As of this year, judges in North Carolina's state courts are required to identify their party affiliation on voting ballots. As The New York Times pointed out, North Carolina was the first state to implement such a requirement in nearly a century.

In response, the Republican-led General Assembly stripped the state's Democratic governor of his power to name replacements for retiring Republican judges by reducing the size of the state Court of Appeals, the Times reported.

"Instead of changing the way they write their laws, they want to change the judges," Gov. Roy Cooper told the Times.

Almost a dozen of Cooper's vetoes have been overridden by the legislature so far, most recently on Monday "when lawmakers sustained a bill to eliminate judicial primary elections, which Mr. Cooper called part of an effort to 'rig the system,'" the Times reported.

In the month of October "lawmakers drew new boundaries for judicial districts statewide, which critics say are meant to increase the number of Republican judges on district and superior courts and would force many African-Americans on the bench into runoffs against other incumbents," the Times also reported.

Republicans such as Rep. Justin Burr have said the party is just "making good policy," according to the Times.

Judicial courts have become increasingly polarized over the years in general, and North Carolina hasn't just followed suit -- it's quietly lead the way.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refused to let former President Barack Obama nominate Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court for his final 10 months in office, after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, ensuring the seat would be vacant for President Donald Trump to fill. While Trump has struggled to push his agenda and achieve legislative wins, he has silently made moves that could have a long lasting impact on federal courts, all with the help from the conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation.

Salon has previously reported:

When Trump entered office, he inherited over 100 judicial vacancies. The number of judicial vacancies grew during the Obama administration, when Senate Republicans refused to confirm many of Obama’s nominees to the seats Trump is now filling. When Obama entered office, there were 54 judicial vacancies. President Trump now has the opportunity to fill over 130.

Those who closely watch the courts — legal reporters, scholars left and right, and US senators — agree: Trump’s efforts to transform the federal judiciary may be the most enduring accomplishment of his presidency.

Still, the power grab Republicans are looking to make in North Carolina has been described as unprecedented.

"We’re the first state since 1921 moving toward partisan elections for judges," Representative Marcia Morey, a Democrat who was a district court judge before entering the legislature, told the Times. "I feel like we’re taking off the black robes and we’re putting on red and blue robes, and does that really serve the interests of justice?"

Almost $20 million in TV advertisements flooded the State Supreme Court races last year, the Times reported, all of which was funded by outside groups. After $2.8 million in ads dominated a race in which a Democrat unseated a Republican, the balance of the court was shifted. According to the Times, "Republican lawmakers shortly after required Supreme Court candidates — who had run without party labels — to appear on a partisan ballot."

North Carolina has also been the subject of a brutal voter suppression campaign. In May, the Supreme Court refused to allow a voting law in the state that was struck down by a federal court and described as a law that would "target African-Americans with almost surgical precision."

Michael Crowell, a former associate director of the Institute of Government at the University of North Carolina, told the Times, "anybody who has been around for a while will tell you what’s happened in the last few years is on an entirely different level than anything done before."

Crowley, who said he is not affiliated with a political party, added, "the common feature here is that so much of it seems to be designed to manipulate the election process."

By Charlie May

MORE FROM Charlie May