Opinion
Voters should not ignore judiciary elections
Old Gold & Black
By
Staff Columnist
Friday, October 28, 2016

In any election in which we choose who our next commander-in-chief will be, it can be easy for voters to only focus on the choices for president, and they often do that at the expense of devoting their attention to other key down-ballot races.

It is a tolerable error to make. Americans lead busy lives and can hardly be expected to know every little fact about each individual candidate running for office.

Yet while it is true that some races definitely warrant more consideration than others, one election here in North Carolina that is of particularly heightened significance this year is the battle for the seventh seat on the state’s Supreme Court.

As the state’s highest judicial body, the North Carolina Supreme Court receives cases that mostly come from the state’s Court of Appeals. Sometimes these cases involve important constitutional questions, but perhaps the most notable task that the Court performs with great frequency is their decision to uphold or overrule various laws that affect all aspects of North Carolinians’ daily lives.

These issues range in subject matter from parental rights to criminal procedure to tort claims and a good deal of the decisions that the court hands down have a more direct impact on North Carolina residents than the so often discussed verdicts that the Supreme Court renders. 

Wake County Judge Mike Morgan is running against incumbent Bob Edmunds in the race, and many who have monitored the court’s rulings closely have noted that the result of the election will certainly determine the ideological proclivity of the court for years to come.

Similar to the recent passing of Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whichever candidate does ultimately occupy the open space will likely tilt the court slightly to the left or right.

The race is officially a nonpartisan contest, but with Edmunds being a registered Republican and Morgan a registered Democrat, it is clear to most that the election will do more than just arbitrarily decide which man will fill the seat.

Two recent rulings of the court that were both split (i.e., 4-3 decisions that seemed to run on party lines) were the redistricting case that litigants claimed had been drawn on racial grounds, and the case that involved the constitutionality of a voucher program that used public funds for charter schools.

The redistricting case was an especially contentious one as a federal appeals court eventually ruled to throw out the districts; although, not in time for this upcoming election.

Also, given the nature of the case, some North Carolinians have found it hard to believe that the justices completely divorced their political preferences from their judicial philosophies when they made their decisions.

Their concerns certainly have some merit. The mere fact that the federal court upended the ruling suggests that the four justices who are generally understood to be more conservative might have had political motives.

But it is very unlikely that any of these justices had overtly political motivations. All members of the judicial branch —whether they serve on the local, state, or federal level — do not make decisions based primarily on policy.

Indeed, our government is designed in such a way that judges are forbidden to do that. Judges in every court simply decide the validity (and sometimes the constitutionality) of a given statute; they do not, in Justice Edmunds’ own words, decide whether a particular law “is a good move or a bad move.”

In theory, if anyone could prove that a justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court made a decision in the redistricting case based primarily on political preference, that justice would likely be recused or at the very least subject to review or investigation.

The difference among judges, then, can be found in the judicial philosophies of the different members of the court (which, given how correlated these are with judge’s own personal political views, one can understand why voters construe philosophy and political preference to be virtually the same).

With Morgan and Edmunds, a difference in judicial philosophy surely exists, and their differing opinions concerning the school voucher case speak to that dissimilarity.

The question that the court had to answer in that case was whether it was permissible for public funds to be granted to charter schools, and in a four to three ruling, the court said that it was.

The criticism of the ruling from the left asserted that the program took away money from public schools, but in an interview with WCQS Radio, Edmunds cited the briefings in the case, in which he made clear that the program did not divert funds away from public schools.

Morgan, on the other hand, called the decision “disappointing” and expressed regret that the majority ruled as they did.

It is likely, if Morgan were able to cast a vote in that case, that he would have put forth some sort of claim similar to a disparate impact rationale. In American labor proceedings, such a claim means that a law is unauthorized if it disproportionately affects a protected group (even if the statute contains ostensibly neutral language).

In the same interview, Edmunds acknowledged such a rationale and said that it may well be that more cases will come before the court which deal expressly with the quality of certain schools, but that the issue of quality was not before the court in the voucher case.

Regardless, it is clear that this case has yet to be definitively settled, and others of similar nature will undoubtedly come across the court’s docket in the future.

For that reason, all North Carolina voters should take their choice for the seventh seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court very seriously. As the old adage goes, you be the judge.