[This article was originally published June 24, 2018, and updated on October 7, 2018.]
This fall, North Carolina will be electing about 160 judges to the bench — from the state’s highest court to its lowest trial court.
After a spate of election-related laws, however, there are numerous changes to how voters will do this.
Here’s a breakdown of all the changes you need to know about.
First, here’s how North Carolina’s court system is structured.
We’ll start at the bottom.
The ground floor of the state court system is District Court. There are 43 districts across the state, most of them either one or two counties.
These courts hear civil cases involving less than $25,000 and criminal misdemeanors. District Court also oversees juvenile court and the magistrates, which handle things like small claims and evictions.
Superior Court, then, handles felonies and larger civil cases. The N.C. Business Court is also under its purview.
The districts are similar, but they’re also part of larger divisions. Judges rotate between districts in their division.
Then come the appeals courts.
The N.C. Court of Appeals is a 15-member body that hears cases in panels of three judges. They hear the initial appeal on most cases, excluding death penalty cases. They determine if the law was applied correctly in the trial court.
Finally, the N.C. Supreme Court has 7 justices and is the final say on matters of state law.
The biggest change: All races are partisan this year.
While political parties have often endorsed judges, North Carolina judicial elections have been nonpartisan for most of the last 20 years.
Why? As North Carolina’s political environment began to shift and conservatives aligned more with the Republican Party, more Republican judges began to get elected in the late 1990s. Democrats who ran the General Assembly changed the rules to make races nonpartisan in order to help their party’s members get elected.
Judicial races for Superior Court went nonpartisan in 1996, and District Court in 2001. The Supreme Court was partisan until 2002.
Well, that’s all come full circle. Since regaining power, Republicans have steadily made more judicial races partisan again.
- Under a 2015 law, Court of Appeals candidates were made to declare their party designation after filing, with that information included on ballots. There were no party primaries, but voters at the ballot box could see which candidate aligned with which party.
- In late 2016, the state legislature passed a law that made state Supreme Court races partisan. This goes into effect for this year’s election.
- Then in 2017, the General Assembly passed a law that made District Court and Superior Court races partisan, as well. That goes into effect with this election.
There were no primaries, though.
There’s still more step before judicial races are fully partisan. Starting in 2020, there will almost certainly be party primaries in judicial races. This year, though, that will not be the case.
Tucked into a broader election law passed last year was a provision to end judicial primaries for judicial elections positions from District Court to the Supreme Court — just for this year.
This means that the November ballots will likely be packed with numerous candidates, with the top vote-getter earning the office in a simple plurality.
A U.S. District Court judge upheld the plan last week.
This will benefit unaffiliated candidates, who will not have to go through the extra hoops in gathering signatures to be included on the ballot. They will in 2020 though.
Live in Wake, Mecklenburg, New Hanover or Pender? You’ll elect judges differently.
The General Assembly has been studying an overhaul to how judges are districted, but that appears to be off the table for this year.
However, under Senate Bill 757 as passed over the governor’s veto, there is a new way to elect District Court and Superior Court judges in four counties.
District Court changes affect Wake and Mecklenburg counties.
In the past, District Court candidates were elected countywide. Now, there are individual districts that candidates must run in.
This has angered the typically collegial judges who live in these counties, who now face direct competition with colleagues, moving to a new district or giving up their seats. Numerous District Court judges are “double-bunked” in the approved maps. Many of them are Democrats — but some Republicans, too, get this treatment.
Mecklenburg County will now elect its 21 District Court judges from eight different zones.
Wake County will now elect 19 judges from six districts.
The changes to Superior Court are similar in style and affect Mecklenburg, New Hanover and Pender counties.
In Mecklenburg County, judges were elected from three districts, with multiple judges per district.
Now there will be one Superior Court judge elected from each district you see in the District Court map.
New Hanover and Pender counties were separated from one big Superior Court district to three separate ones.
The big race: N.C. Supreme Court
In a state with divided government, disputes between the Democratic governor and Republican-controlled legislature often end up at the N.C. Supreme Court.
Democrats already have a slim advantage on the court, with four of the seats held by the party.
This year, a Republican seat is up for grabs. That makes the stakes super high.
Justice Barbara Jackson, a Republican, is up for re-election. She faces Anita Earls, a civil rights attorney from Durham who has challenged Republican-drawn electoral districts in court. She’s also done legal work supporting the Racial Justice Act, through which people on death row can challenge their sentence on grounds of racial bias.
Complicating matters is a second Republican in the race: Chris Anglin. He was a Democrat who switched his party affiliation at the last second to challenge Jackson. The General Assembly passed a law to strip the “R” from next to his name, but it was shot down in the courts.
Polls have Earls with a sizable lead, due in part to Republicans splitting.
Court of Appeals
Stakes are similarly high on the Court of Appeals. Three seats are up for election, and the two held by Republicans will not feature an incumbent running.
Republicans currently hold 10 of the 15 seats. Both Ann Marie Calabria and Rick Elmore are stepping down after two 8-year terms on the bench.