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NC high court race could shift partisan balance

By Gary D. Robertson

Associated Press

RALEIGH — The philosophical and political balance of North Carolina’s Supreme Court could shift as voters this fall choose to keep a longtime justice or replace him with a veteran Wake County trial judge.

Associate Justice Bob Edmunds is seeking to stay on the court after winning eight-year terms in 2000 and 2008. His challenger is Superior Court Judge Mike Morgan, who has been hearing cases since the late 1980s. Edmunds and Morgan advanced to the general election as the top vote-getters among four candidates in the June 7 primary, with Edmunds finishing first.

Both highlight their experience and what they call an ability to be fair and impartial.

Morgan, however, is citing recent Supreme Court rulings that favored Republican legislation and Edmunds calling himself a “conservative” on campaign placards as evidence change is needed. Edmunds say backing from county sheriffs, former chief justices and heads of attorney groups that wear all partisan stripes shows he’s doing his job well.

While state Supreme Court elections are officially nonpartisan, four of the seven current justices, including Edmunds, are registered Republicans. Three are registered Democrats, as is Morgan. A Morgan victory would give Democrats a majority on the court for the first time since 1998.

Most opinions of the court are unanimous, or divisions don’t fall along party affiliations. Still, some recent opinions addressing legislation approved by Republicans at the General Assembly highlight the partisan split.

The Republican justices have backed majority opinions over the past two years upholding legislative and congressional districts and the use of taxpayer money as scholarships for K-12 students to attend private or religious schools. Morgan argues Edmunds has contributed to the “politicization” of a court that is supposed to use its constitutional authority to keeps checks and balances on other branches of government.

“My lens will be clear. It will not be shaded in any political direction,” Morgan said, adding that Edmunds’ conservative designation in the campaign “shows a political orientation and a political bent.”

Edmunds said that’s not true. In a recent televised forum with Morgan, Edmunds argued “conservative” refers to his judicial philosophy of following the rule of law and deferring to previous court decisions. The justice also cited opinions where the entire Supreme Court has agreed that the General Assembly overstepped its powers, though legislative appointments to the state’s now-defunct coal ash commission and taking away tenure rights promised to public school teachers who had already earned them.

“People are satisfied that I’m a judge that makes decisions based on the law and the facts,” Edmunds said in an interview, suggesting later that Morgan is the one trying to make the campaign partisan. “I am not trying to inject politics into this race.”

Morgan, 60, previously worked as an assistant state attorney general before being appointed as an administrative law judge in 1989. He became a District Court judge in 1994 and moved to Superior Court in 2005, winning elections for both.

Morgan has been the presiding judge in a lawsuit challenging a 2013 law requiring photo identification to vote. A trial was expected to begin last month but Morgan put it on hold after federal judges struck down the law over the summer. A conservative group questioned whether Morgan should have removed himself from the case, given the upcoming election. Morgan said he would continue to preside, citing a judicial ethics official’s correspondence finding no conflict.

Edmunds is a former assistant state and federal prosecutor and U.S. attorney for central North Carolina who was elected to the intermediate-level state Court of Appeals in 1998. At 67, Edmunds would not be able to complete an additional eight-year term if he’s elected next month because state law requires a mandatory retirement for judges at 72. The governor at the time would appoint a replacement.

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