NC’s justice system will be more progressive in 2019
When Anita Earls won a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court this past November, much attention went to how the new Democratic judge’s presence on the court might affect high-profile legal issues like gerrymandering or the ongoing power struggle between the governor and legislature.
Earls was sworn in Thursday after unseating a Republican justice. After taking her oath, she told the assembled crowd about how she was inspired by her grandmother, a black woman who was born in 1899 and never learned to read or write. Earls then spoke of her own work as a civil rights attorney, and she praised several state and local programs dedicated to addressing racial inequities in the North Carolina justice system.
“While I am grateful we have come a long way, we have much work in front of us,” Earls said.
But legal experts say while Earls’ victory got the headlines, there are actually numerous lowerprofile races that could end up having a greater impact on shifting the state’s court system to the left.
Earls is just one person on a court in which an opinion needs at least four justices to sign on to form a majority. And even if she hadn’t won, the court would still have a Democratic majority. Her win shifted the court’s balance from a 4-3 to a 5-2 Democratic majority.
“I don’t see a huge seismic shift on the court,” Bob Orr, a former N.C. Supreme Court justice, said. Behind-the-scenes debates go into every ruling, he said — plus those debates are over legal philosophies, not partisan politics.
“On the Supreme Court, with seven justices, you’re only one judge,” he said. “So you can be as crazy liberal as you like, as crazy conservative as you like. You still have to convince at least three other judges.”
The more notable victories for criminal justice overhauls and more progressive stances on civil court issues, experts told The News & Observer, happened in local contests for county sheriffs and prosecutors, or in the multiple seats on the North Carolina Court of Appeals that Democrats also flipped.
“I think it really is true that the DA elections are the areas in which there can be the most potential for change,” Enrique Armijo, an associate dean of the Elon University School of Law, said. “For better or worse, our criminal justice system embeds so much discretion in prosecutors. And it’s reasonable that moving from a Republican district attorney to a Democratic district attorney could have some consequences that are more defendant-friendly.”
HOW WE GOT HERE
Some areas, like Pitt County, elected a Democratic district attorney to replace a Republican. Other areas, like Durham County, doubled down on reform-minded prosecutors.
In the 2018 elections, North Carolina’s seven largest counties — Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Forsyth, Cumberland, Durham and Buncombe — all elected black sheriffs. Those counties are home to nearly 40 percent of the state’s population, and the majority of the state’s black residents, according to state demographics data. The News & Observer previously reported that in five of those seven counties, voters elected a black sheriff for the first time ever.
Pitt County, which is home to Greenville and is the state’s 14th biggest county, has a black population that’s significantly higher than the statewide average, according to state data. But it has never had a black sheriff or a black district attorney — until last November, when voters elected black Democrats to both of the county’s top law enforcement positions, local news station WITN reported. Paula Dance is the new sheriff and Faris Dixon is the new district attorney. WITN also reported that Dance is the first black woman elected sheriff anywhere in North Carolina, and just the fifth ever in the United States.
COULD LIBERALS CHANGE LAW ENFORCEMENT?
Armijo said having more liberal politicians in charge of law enforcement jobs could have numerous outcomes — juries could become more racially diverse, he said, or defendants could start getting better plea deals or lower bail amounts.
“You never hear about the cases that don’t get brought, or the charges that could’ve been greater but are lesser,” Armijo said. “But I think we will see a more collaborative effort in criminal justice, and some changes that — I don’t want to say are easier on criminal defendants — but are recognizing that most of the people in our criminal justice system don’t have the ability to pay, whether it’s for representation, or bail, or fines.”
The sheriffs and prosecutors decide which types of crimes in their community get pursued and sent to trial. Then, it’s up to juries and judges to evaluate the evidence. Judges also hear civil cases about child custody, contract disputes, workplace issues and more.
A News & Observer analysis of all the 2018 judicial elections across the state — for judges and district attorneys — found that Democrats and Republicans split them almost exactly. Democrats won 100 seats, Republicans won 99 and unaffiliated candidates won another four races.
In Cabarrus County, voters elected that area’s first-ever black judge in Juanita Boger-Allen, according to the Concord Independent Tribune.
And with Earls, there are now three black or biracial judges on the seven-person Supreme Court. All are Democrats.
The Court of Appeals still has a Republican majority among its 15 judges. Despite Democrats winning all three seats up for election this year, Republicans retained an 8-7 majority. And unlike on the Supreme Court, where all the justices hear a case and vote together, cases at the Court of Appeals are typically heard by a panel of three judges. So Democrats cutting into the GOP majority makes it more likely that a case will have at least one Democratic judge hearing it.
Orr, however, said he thinks people usually read too much into a judge’s political party, since most do a good job of keeping their political beliefs out of the courtroom.
N.C. Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls receives a standing ovation after her swearing-in ceremony.