NC’s jus­tice sys­tem will be more pro­gres­sive in 2019

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Local - BY WILL DO­RAN wdo­[email protected]­sob­

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.”


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.


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.

CHUCK LIDDY [email protected]­sob­

N.C. Supreme Court Jus­tice Anita Earls re­ceives a stand­ing ova­tion af­ter her swear­ing-in cer­e­mony.

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