In a stark reversal, the N.C. Court of Appeals will now stay at 15 members after all. Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill into law Thursday to preserve the number of judges.

The new law cancels the General Assembly’s 2017 action to shrink the court to 12 members, allowing the number to gradually decline through attrition. At that time, three Republican members of the Court of Appeals were soon reaching retirement age. The plan would have prevented Gov. Cooper from appointing Democrats to fill the vacant seats.

Cooper vetoed that bill, but the GOP supermajority in the General Assembly at that time overrode the veto.

However, things change quickly.

Republicans also took the lead in filing the 2019 bill to reverse that plan. That bill’s sponsors — Sen. Ralph Hise, Sen. Warren Daniel Sen. Dan Bishop — did not really discuss the rationale.

But there are a lot of issues at play. First, a lawsuit seeking to block the 2017 bill was soon to be considered by the state Supreme Court, which has a 5-2 Democrat majority.

Also, there’s a lot up in the air with the court system, with Justice Cheri Beasley (D) set to take over as chief justice with the departure of Justice Mark Martin (R).

There could potentially be a number of new seats on the ballot in 2020 — and Republicans are expected to pour considerable resources into the judicial elections. With some pretty dramatic activism shown on the part of Democratic judges in recent months, the campaign strategy is practically written for them.

The N.C. Court of Appeals has had 15 members since the year 2000. The court was founded with six judges in the 1960s, but the number expanded over time as the state grew and judge workload grew with it.

Court of Appeals judges serve eight year terms and are elected statewide.

Cover image of the Justice Building in downtown Raleigh, home of the N.C. Supreme Court. Photo by the North Carolina Judicial Branch via Facebook.

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