Nov 1, 2022 - Politics

NC GOP's power hinges on under-the-radar court races

Photo illustration of Sam Ervin, Trey Allen, Lucy Inman, and Richard Dietz.

From left to right: Sam Ervin, Trey Allen, Lucy Inman, and Richard Dietz. Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photos: Ervin, Allen, Inman and Dietz campaigns.

The success of the Republican-led General Assembly’s agenda in the coming years hinges in part on two lesser-known races for North Carolina's Supreme Court.

Why it matters: The majority party on the court will decide the fate of gerrymandering challenges, funding in K-12 education, guns, abortion and other cases that come before it.

  • State supreme courts are now "being asked to make some of the most difficult decisions they've been asked to make in my lifetime," Lucy Inman, a judge on the state’s Court of Appeals and a candidate for a seat on the state Supreme Court, said in a recent candidate forum.

Driving the news: The two parties will have spent millions on advertising in the races by Election Day in an attempt to win a majority on the court.

  • Democrats now hold a 4-3 majority. Republicans need to win just one of these races to flip it.

What’s happening: Two seats are on the ballot: one held by incumbent associate justice Sam Ervin IV, who faces Republican challenger Trey Allen; and an open seat that Republican Richard Dietz and Inman, a Democrat, are vying for.

The big picture: North Carolina, which only recently made court races partisan with a 2016 law, would effectively become a red state if Republicans succeed in taking a majority on the court and a supermajority in the state legislature.

Yes, but: All four candidates have emphasized that they will make decisions independent of their party. They say they aim to restore the public's faith in the courts, as it's become increasingly polarized in recent years.

  • "The public perception of the courts has become very political, and we need to fix it," Dietz said at the candidate forum.
  • Inman tells Axios that the partisan labels invite investment from political parties who believe judges will toe a line based on their ideology.

Judges should hear everyone fairly and make decisions based on the facts and applicable law, Ervin says, not political ideology.

  • “I think it's inevitably going to cause voters to look at judges as if they were simply party politicians under a different rubric,” Ervin says. “And when you have that kind of thing happen, then people begin to lose confidence in the fairness and impartiality of the system.”

State of play: This year's political environment isn't looking great for Democrats.

  • Any red wave would likely affect lower profile races, too, including supreme court races. The farther down voters get on their ballot, the more they tend to vote with the party they chose at the top of the ticket.
  • North Carolina Democratic Party chairperson Bobbie Richardson told Axios that Democrats have started a year-round advocacy program around down ballot races, and held events with Ervin and Inman. The party is looking to stop what it sees as conservative justices that are taking over the courts.
  • With a conservative court, she says, “We would not have any backstop to stop any bad legislation based on partisan politics vs. based on constitutional statutes.”

Be smart: That doesn't mean this year's races won't be close. In 2020, the race for state Supreme Court chief justice between Republican Paul Newby and Democrat Cheri Beasley was decided by just 400 votes. Newby ultimately won out in a year that the state also went for former President Donald Trump.

The candidates

Richard Dietz (R) vs. Lucy Inman (D)

Dietz, the first in his family to attend college, is a Wake Forest and Duke graduate who sits on North Carolina's Court of Appeals, a position he's held since 2014. Before that, he was a partner at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP.

  • Dietz believes the court's role, in part, is to bring justice while ensuring the public that it's following the law, regardless of whether people like the result.
  • "If [the public] lose confidence in the courts, then we no longer have power because we depend entirely on the public trusting that we're independent and that we're not acting as a political body," Dietz said in the candidate forum. "That's always in my mind when I'm interpreting the Constitution."

Inman is a judge on the state Court of Appeals, and previously served as a Superior Court judge. Before that, she was an attorney and reporter, where she said she first fell in love with the law by covering courts and seeing people from all walks of life.

  • It’s especially important, she says, that the people on the losing side of a court case understand how judges made their decision.
  • “They all want to be heard and treated with respect,” she says. “And if the public perceives that a judge or a justice has a thumb on the scale, they're not going to feel like the process is fair.”

Sam Ervin IV (D, incumbent) vs. Trey Allen (R)

Ervin is running for his second term after he was elected in 2014. Before that, he was a judge on the N.C. Court of Appeals, and a member of the state Utilities Commission.

  • Of note: Ervin’s grandfather was the late North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin Jr., who chaired the U.S. Senate Watergate committee.
  • Ervin says he looks at the language of the law: If it’s clear and unambiguous, judges are supposed to apply it as written, he says. But if it’s open to interpretation, he looks at several factors such as the legal context around that provision, the reason the provision was enacted, the historical context, and how other courts have previously interpreted it.

Allen hails from Robeson County and had degrees from UNC-Pembroke and UNC-Chapel Hill. He currently serves as general counsel for the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts. He started his career as a judge advocate in the U.S. Marine Corps, clerked under now-state Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby, ​​served as a partner at Tharrington Smith LLP, and worked at UNC's School of Government.

  • Allen said at the candidate forum that one of the court's primary purposes is to review lower courts' rulings to ensure that they've gotten the law right. It's also vitally important, Allen said, that justices recognize that its decisions could stand for decades.
Other judicial races

North Carolina Court of Appeals

Voters will choose who fills four appellate court judge seats.

Why it matters: The 15-member North Carolina Court of Appeals is where most cases appealed from trial courts are heard, and a panel of three judges will decide if the law was applied correctly in a case.

Seat 8: Republican Julee Tate Flood, an attorney at the Court of Appeals, vs. Democrat Carolyn Jennings Thompson, a former District Court and Superior Court judge.

Seat 9: Democrat Brad Salmon, a district court judge in Lee, Johnston and Harnett counties, v. Republican Donna Stroud, chief judge of the N.C. Court of Appeals.

Seat 10: Incumbent Republican appellate judge John Tyson is running for reelection and faces Democrat and superior court judge Gale Murray Adams.

Seat 11: In December 2020, Democrat Darren Jackson, a former state house representative, was appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper to fill the vacant seat left by Phil Berger Jr. (son of North Carolina Senate leader Phil Berger), who was elected to the state Supreme Court.

  • Jackson is running for a full term against Republican Michael Stading, a district court judge.

Wake County District Court Judge, Seat 01

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