With no primaries scheduled this year for statewide judicial elections, Democrats and Republicans took an unusual step.
Both parties endorsed candidates for the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals before the election filing period opens.
This election year, all judicial races are partisan. The November ballots will list the the political parties claimed by the candidates. But because lawmakers did away with primary elections, in which the parties typically winnow their choices at the voting booth, each ballot could contain many candidates from the same party.
Democrats and Republicans both held state conventions over the weekend and considered how to let voters and potential candidates for the statewide races know the party’s choices.
Democrats announced on Tuesday that Anita Earls, a lawyer who has played a major role in lawsuits challenging North Carolina’s redistricting plans as well as its voter ID law and other voting restrictions, is the party’s choice for the one state Supreme Court seat that will be on the ballot in November.
Republicans announced over the weekend that Barbara Jackson, the Republican who holds the seat now, is their choice. Democrats have a 4-3 majority on the Supreme Court.
On the state Court of Appeals, Republicans have a 10-5 majority. There will be three Court of Appeals seats on the ballot this year.
Democrats have endorsed Allegra Collins, a Raleigh-based attorney who teaches at Campbell University’s law school and often represents clients in the state appellate courts, for the seat that Rick Elmore, a registered Republican, holds. Elmore announced in 2017 that he would not seek re-election in 2018 for a third eight-year term.
Republicans have endorsed Chuck Kitchen, a Raleigh-based attorney who has served as county attorney in Alamance and Durham counties, for the same seat. Kitchen also represented Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson in a high-profile racial bias case filed by the Obama justice department in 2012 and settled in 2016.
Democrats also endorsed John Arrowood, a current member of the appeals court, in his election bid to hold the seat. Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Arrowood, a Democrat and openly gay attorney who has specialized in employment and commercial law, in April 2017 during a power struggle with Republican lawmakers at the helm of the General Assembly for a seat that had been held by Republican Douglas McCullough.
For the same seat, Republicans have endorsed Andrew Heath, a budget director under former Gov. Pat McCrory. Heath was appointed a special Superior Court judge by McCrory in the waning weeks of his administration.
The other seat that will be on the ballot is the one currently held by Ann Marie Calabria, a Republican who is not seeking re-election. For that seat, Democrats endorsed Toby Hampson, a partner at the Raleigh firm of Wyrick, Robbins, Yates & Ponton and leader of the firm’s appellate practice group who has served as a law clerk for several appeals court judges.
Republicans endorsed Jefferson Griffin, a Wake County District Court judge and former assistant Wake County district attorney, for the seat.
The filing period for candidates for the four statewide judicial races and 136 races for Superior Court and District Court seats opens June 18 and closes June 29.
Wayne Goodwin, chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party, announced the endorsements inside the party headquarters with sharp criticism of the lawmakers who abolished primary elections this year for judicial candidates.
“This was forced on us by changes from a Republican legislature desperate to hold on to power and afraid to face the voters this fall,” Goodwin said.
The Democratic Party has filed a lawsuit against legislative leaders, accusing them of violating their constitutional right to assemble and choose their candidates of choice for general-election ballots.
U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles held a bench trial last week but hasn’t issued a ruling deciding whether a special primary will be ordered before November.
Republicans have argued that the primary was eliminated to give lawmakers more time to consider proposals for statewide judicial redistricting and the possibility of moving from the election of judges to a selection process.
Lawmakers are in session and continue to consider changes to election districts for judges.
They have spent much of the past few years proposing changes to the courts that rule on the constitutionality of their laws. They have reduced the size of the state Court of Appeals, considered retention elections for the state Supreme Court seat held by a Republican and talked about whether to ask voters to amend the state Constitution so lawmakers play a prominent role in deciding who rules in the courtrooms.
“Nowhere in America are so many changes coming to courts in such a relatively short period of time,” Goodwin said. “These changes are for one reason and one reason only — to put pressure on the independent judiciary that is acting as a check on their power. Republicans and Republican lawmakers are trying to rig our judiciary because they keep losing in court.”
As part of the law passed in October that eliminated the primaries for all judicial races — even those that would not be affected by changes to Superior Court and District Court election districts — the lawmakers amended rules for who could file and for how long they had to be a member of a party before filing as a Democrat or Republican.
“Candidates can change their partisan affiliation right before filing and run as a Democrat to split the Democratic vote,” Goodwin said. “This is not a hypothetical. It’s already happening, my friends.”
Goodwin said a Franklin County attorney who has publicly supported President Donald Trump and been critical of Democrats recently announced he had switched his registration from Republican to Democrat and was running for a Superior Court seat as a Democrat.
“There’s rumors of even more Republicans following suit,” Goodwin added.
Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, said Tuesday that Republicans had to change their process, too, this year.
“Has this been a pain?” Woodhouse said. “No. We had to change our party rules and we had to do it on a Sunday. I don’t see any partisan benefit. I think Democrats stomping their feet and calling everything political is not right.
“I think the legislature wanted to attempt to do some judicial reform, and they’re in the process of it.”