RALEIGH — Beyond Roy Cooper’s continuing lead in North Carolina’s still-unresolved governor’s race, the state’s Democrats may be happiest about winning a majority on the state Supreme Court for the first time in nearly 20 years.
Republicans won most of the down-ballot races on election night, but Wake County Superior Court Judge Mike Morgan delivered a decisive victory to unseat Republican Bob Edmunds as an associate justice. The state’s Supreme Court races are officially nonpartisan, but have been shaded by politics for years, especially since Republicans in the legislature have pushed a right-leading agenda.
Morgan, a Democrat, pressed the narrative that Edmunds was an enabler of the changes sought by GOP lawmakers.
“The voters of North Carolina in my race definitely said and responded to my message that the Supreme Court should not be politicized, nor any seat should be politicized,” Morgan said in an interview with The Associated Press after the election. He said that his judicial experience and community credentials also helped him win by 9 percentage points over Edmunds.
Several laws the GOP passed have been struck down by federal or state courts. Others, such as redistricting maps and funding private K-12 scholarships with taxpayer money, were upheld along party lines by the four Republicans on the seven-member state Supreme Court.
Edmunds, a justice since 2001, wrote the majority opinion last December upholding GOP-drawn legislative and congressional districts. He called claims of him politicizing the court false.
Once Morgan takes office in January, a Democratic lawmaker says, the court of four Democrats and three Republicans will provide a stronger safeguard against unconstitutional legislation, since the GOP will continue to have veto-proof majorities in the General Assembly even if Cooper unseats Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.
Morgan’s victory “was enormous. I don’t know how to say it emphatically enough,” said Rep. Duane Hall, D-Wake. “It’s going to mean a lot, not just to Democrats but to all of North Carolina.”
North Carolina Families First, a super PAC aligned with Democrats, spent at least $1.7 million on negative television ads emphasizing Edmunds’ authorship of the redistricting opinion, which federal judges essentially reversed, striking down dozens of districts as illegal racial gerrymanders.
The North Carolina Chamber and a super PAC called Fair Judges ran commercials backing Edmunds, who is white, against Morgan, who is black.
While the anti-Edmunds ad campaign likely contributed to Edmunds’ defeat, Morgan also may have benefited from ballot placement laws, including a new one that may have backfired on Republicans.
Historically, candidates of the governor’s party have appeared first on the ballot in partisan races. This year, that means Republicans were first. Candidate order in non-partisan judicial races is still determined at random. This year, Morgan was listed first in the race for Supreme Court.
But Republican lawmakers last year also approved a new law that directed Court of Appeals races — sequenced right behind the Supreme Court race on ballots — to list the candidates’ party affiliations, even though they are still officially nonpartisan, with Republicans again first in each race.
The result meant Edmunds was the only Republican not listed first on ballots, GOP campaign consultant Michael Luethy said. Research already shows the first candidate like Morgan often benefits in such down-ballot races, Luethy said.
Morgan calls this argument “disingenuous speculation” and sour grapes, and says the ballot order probably cost him some Democratic votes.
Now groups and lawmakers on the left are frantically warning supporters that the GOP could perform a late-year power play to preserve a Republican majority. That script has Republicans using a special legislative session for Hurricane Matthew and wildlife relief to create two new associate justice positions, which McCrory would then fill to give the GOP a 5-4 advantage.
Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, labeled it as just a rumor that’s not been discussed by the chamber’s GOP caucus. House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said it’s also not been talked formally on his side, either.
“We haven’t planned to do anything along those lines at this point,” Moore told reporters this week. “I’m not saying it won’t happen. I’m not saying it will happen.”