One of the most politicized judicial elections in the nation unfolded in 2016 in North Carolina, where the ideological balance of the state supreme court was at stake, the supercharged issue of racial gerrymandering infused attack ads, and President Barack Obama took the unprecedented step of endorsing a judicial candidate. When the votes were counted, lower court judge Michael Morgan defeated incumbent Justice Robert Edmunds Jr., giving the North Carolina Supreme Court its first Democratic majority since 1998 and putting a second African-American justice on the court.

The election attracted $5.4 million in spending overall, only $672,230 of which was spent by the candidates themselves. While North Carolina’s 2016 supreme court election was technically nonpartisan, the parties made their candidates-of-choice clear. Edmunds benefited from higher outside spending than his rival, including $1.45 million in TV spending by the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, and more than $1.18 million by Fair Judges, a group funded by the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Judicial Fairness Initiative, the state GOP, and corporate interests.

Morgan, meanwhile, benefited from more than $1.7 million in TV spending by North Carolina Families First (NCFF), a group that also supported Democratic candidates in state legislative races. Make NC First, a dark money group, donated more than $1 million dollars to NCFF for the production of pro-Morgan ads. Obama’s endorsement of Morgan in a video posted on YouTube also contributed to the election’s high profile. A review of newspaper articles could not find any other example of a state judicial candidate endorsed by a U.S. President.

“Redistricting 2,” paid for by North Carolina Families First. Copyright 2016, Kantar Media/CMAG.

A decision in a redistricting case also emerged as a major issue during the campaign. NCFF targeted Edmunds for writing a 2014 opinion in which the state supreme court upheld North Carolina’s congressional map, which the plaintiffs argued was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. (A federal court later found that the maps were discriminatory, and the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the ruling.) 1 The North Carolina Supreme Court had split 4-3 on party lines, and ads depicted Edmunds’ 2011 decision as “supporting his party’s discrimination.” 2

Partisan wrangling over the North Carolina courts did not end on election day. Since Democrats captured both the state supreme court and the governor’s office in November 2016, the Republican-controlled legislature has passed a series of troubling bills that have the effect of building a partisan advantage in the courts — including reintroducing partisan elections at all court levels, and reducing the size of North Carolina’s intermediate appellate court from 15 to 12 seats, in order to prevent the Democratic governor from filling anticipated vacancies. 3 A measure to redraw lower court judicial districts was considered in a special October 2017 session and is expected to be taken up again in 2018, along with a bill that would introduce a legislative appointment system for state judges.

Notes:

  1. Following extensive litigation and appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the map this year in Cooper v. Harris, 137 S. Ct. 1455 (2017), upholding a lower federal court’s ruling that North Carolina engaged in unconstitutional racial gerrymandering when it packed African-American voters into two congressional districts. The Brennan Center filed an amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court.
  2. Mark Binker, “’Snake’ ad aims to bite Supreme Court justice,” WRAL.com, October 20, 2016, http://www.wral.com/-snake-ad-aims-to-bite-supreme-court-justice/16139613/.
  3. Melissa Boughton, “An in-depth look at N.C. lawmakers’ attempt to shrink the Court of Appeals,” N.C. Policy Watch, March 16, 2017, http://www.ncpolicywatch.com/2017/03/16/depth-look-n-c-lawmakers-attempt-shrink-court-appeals/.