Democrats won a majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court on Election Day, but at least one conservative group has floated the possibility of flipping it back to GOP control by quickly expanding the court by two seats, securing two more conservative picks before the end of lame-duck Gov. Pat McCrory’s (R) term.
Republicans have largely avoided commenting on the matter, with one GOP legislative leader denying that plans to expand the nominally non-partisan court are in the works.
Though he has yet to concede the governor’s race, it appears McCrory has lost his re-election bid and will leave office Jan. 7, 2017. He is trailing Democratic challenger state attorney general Roy Cooper by about 5,000 votes. The state Republican Party has asked for a recount in Durham County, and McCrory said last week that he would not concede the race until at least Nov. 18. Despite McCrory’s apparent loss, Republicans maintained their supermajority in the state legislature.
McCrory’s apparent defeat came at the same time that Wake County Superior Court Judge Mike Morgan, a Democrat, defeated state Supreme Court Justice Bob Edmunds, a Republican, for a seat on the court, flipping the majority on the state’s highest court from Republicans to Democrats. Elections for the state Supreme Court are not partisan, and justices are elected to eight year terms. But the governor appoints justices to fill vacancies on the court, and those justices would then be up for re-election during the next election for the general assembly, which takes place every two years.
In a Thursday op-ed in the Carolina Journal, Mitch Kokai, the communications director at the conservative John Locke Foundation, wrote that such a move could reverse the results of the 2016 judicial elections in North Carolina.
“State lawmakers could vote to expand North Carolina’s Supreme Court by up to two additional members, according to the N.C. Constitution. There’s been speculation about such a move in the wake of challenger Mike Morgan’s victory over incumbent Bob Edmunds in this week’s state Supreme Court election,” Kokai wrote. “Observers have asked whether the N.C. General Assembly could expand the number of justices to blunt the election’s impact. The answer is yes.”
Indeed, legislators in North Carolina could vote to add two justices to the state’s highest court, allowing the governor to appoint justices to fill the seats, as the News and Observer noted. Those justices would not be up for re-election until 2018.
Republicans would have limited time in which to add the seats since McCrory appears poised to leave office in January.
The Winston-Salem Journal reported on Friday that Republican lawmakers were considering adding the two seats, citing an unnamed state legislator and an unnamed lawyer who received an “email to the legal community from an individual who had heard” that lawmakers were considering the move. And the Indy Week also reported that Republican lawmakers were thinking about adding justices to the court, citing a Democratic legislative staffer.
But Republican state Rep. David Lewis, chair of the House Rules Committee, denied to the News and Observer that Republicans were considering the move.
“We have not talked about anything of that nature,” he said.
Republican state Sen. Jeff Tarte also dismissed reports that Republicans are looking into adding seats to the Supreme Court.
“That’s one of the stupidest ideas I’ve ever heard of,” he told Charlotte television station WSOC. “I mean, we’ve got to quit doing stupid party politics when people are going in or going out of office.”