Federal Judges: No Primaries For Appeals Court Seats

Feb 12, 2018

Primaries for North Carolina state appellate court seats won't happen this year if a federal appeals court decision stands. A panel of judges Friday reversed a lower court decision that would have required the primaries, giving a victory to Republican state lawmakers.

The GOP-controlled General Assembly voted last October to cancel the 2018 primaries for both trial court and appellate court seats. GOP lawmakers argued it made sense to hold only one general election for each seat this year because the House and Senate were debating changes to election districts for the trial court seats. They said they didn't want to create confusion if new districts were approved after candidate filing was completed under previous boundaries.

The state Democratic Party and several county Democratic parties sued, saying their First Amendment right to association was harmed by the cancellations because they use primaries to coalesce party voters around favored candidates.

The decision by a majority on a panel on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came three days before candidate filing would have started for three seats on the state Court of Appeals and one for the state Supreme Court. If Friday's order is upheld, filing for the seats won't occur until June.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles of Greensboro agreed last week that the cancellation of trial court primaries was justified, with the lawmakers' debate over judicial redistricting a legitimate reason. But Eagles signed a preliminary injunction that restored appeals court primaries, saying lawyers for GOP legislative leaders and the state offered no justification for getting rid of primaries for the statewide races.

Eagles refused to delay her own order, so the legislature's attorneys went to the 4th Circuit.

On the panel, U.S. Circuit Judges Stephanie Thacker and Paul Niemeyer voted to grant the delay, while Judge Diana Gribbon Motz voted against it, according to their order, which gave no reasons for the majority's decision.

Eagles' ruling "has created a confusing, bifurcated system of judicial elections on the eve of the election cycle," GOP attorney Martin Warf wrote earlier this week in seeking the delay, adding there is "simply not enough time for the state to educate potential candidates, for candidates to prepare to run, or for the state to prepare for the court-imposed, two-tier system for electing their judges in 2018."

State Democratic Party Chair Wayne Goodwin said the party was "evaluating all further legal options available" after Friday's ruling. Goodwin said it was the Republicans who "injected chaos into our elections and took away North Carolina voters right to vote in a primary election" as part of a redistricting effort to elect more GOP judges.

State Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County, which shepherded the measure containing the primary cancellations, said he was pleased with the appeals court decision.

"We think it makes more sense to open all the judicial filing at one time," Lewis told reporters.