Retirements bring change to N.C. courts, elections

The Associated Press

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RALEIGH – Musical chairs on North Carolina’s appeals courts are bringing more intrigue to statewide judicial elections heading to November. But anticipated injections of outside money this fall may be what increases voter attention to otherwise low-key court races.

The leaders of the N.C. Supreme Court and Court of Appeals will have retired within a month when N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Parker steps down at the end of August. On Saturday, Parker turned 72 – the mandatory retirement age for judges.

N.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge John Martin also stepped down from the court at the end of July, leading to a whopping 19 candidates filing earlier this month to run for the seat he left behind and eight years on the court. Parker already promoted veteran N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Linda McGee to the chief judge’s job, but McGee’s seat isn’t up for re-election.

As for the N.C. Supreme Court, Gov. Pat McCrory announced this past week Associate Justice Mark Martin as Parker’s successor as chief justice – at least for the next few months. Mark Martin was already running for a full eight-year term as chief justice, but will hold the incumbent chief justice title going into his election with N.C. Superior Court Judge Ola Lewis of Brunswick County.

“I look forward to leading the Supreme Court and supervising the administration of justice on behalf of the people of North Carolina,” Mark Martin said at McCrory’s appointment announcement. While the elections are officially nonpartisan, Lewis and Martin are both registered Republicans, creating for uncomfortable moments recently.

Mark Martin received the endorsement of the N.C. Republican Party State Executive Committee this month and has promoted his backing from five living former chief justices. Martin joined the Supreme Court in 1999, but Lewis said she’s got more leadership experience than Martin by serving as her area’s senior resident Superior Court judge.

With McCrory’s appointment of Mark Martin, Lewis said in a statement, “the political establishment in Raleigh is intent on crowning Mark Martin as the next chief justice and influencing this election through insider politics.”

McCrory also chose N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Bob Hunter of Morehead City to fill Mark Martin’s associate justice seat through the end of the year. Since Mark Martin already was running for chief justice, Hunter, a Republican, had filed months ago for Mark Martin’s associate justice position and is running against fellow N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Sam Ervin IV, a Democrat.

On Friday, McCrory appointed Special N.C. Superior Court Judge Lisa Bell from Mecklenburg County to fill John Martin’s unexpired term as a judge on the Court of Appeals. The 19 candidates who want his seat include former N.C. Court of Appeals Judges John Tyson and John Arrowood. The candidate with the most votes wins, which means the person elected could receive fewer than 10 percent of the votes cast. Bell is not running for the seat and will serve through the end of the year.

Interest in judicial races is already low. For example, 23 percent fewer people voted in a state Supreme Court race in November 2012 compared to the number of votes for president on the same ballot. More voters than ever may simply throw up their hands and ignore the race with such a large number of candidates, said Joe Stewart, executive director of the N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation, which tracks political campaigns for the business community.

“Not many voters have a full understanding of who these candidates are, and what the significance of the Supreme Court or the appellate court is,” he said.

There are contested races in November for four of the seven seats on the Supreme Court and three of the 15 on the Court of Appeals, which hears intermediate appeals using three-judge panels. Independent expenditure groups appear poised again to influence the Supreme Court’s composition, as they did in the 2012 general election and 2014 primary.

Nearly $1 million was spent by outside groups designed to defeat Associate Justice Robin Hudson in this year’s nonpartisan primary. Hudson survived the three-candidate primary and will face former N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Eric Levinson in November.

Based on the May primary, Stewart said, “it’s clear that we will see a lot of outside campaign activity in these judicial races.”