Judge won’t restore judicial primaries

By: Staff and wire report

RALEIGH — The judicial election season officially has begun in North Carolina, with candidates filing and a federal judge nixing primaries.

Filing began Monday and ends June 29 for people seeking an elected judgeship. The Robesonian will publish an article Saturday detailing who filed this week for three District Court judgeships.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles announced Tuesday she would side with the GOP defendants in a lawsuit filed by the state Democratic Party and several county Democratic parties. They had demanded the restoration of primaries for trial and appellate court seats. A one-day trial was held this month in Greensboro.

She shared no legal reasoning in her two-sentence order, saying a full ruling would come next week. Eagles’ order said she announced her decision now because candidate filing for judicial seats began this week.

“In view of the opening of the filing period, the court advises the parties that it will rule for the defendants and will dismiss the case with prejudice,” Eagles’ order says.

The GOP-controlled legislature voted last fall to eliminate primaries for the officially partisan races for more than 150 District Court and Superior Court seats, three seats on the Court of Appeals and one on the Supreme Court.

Republicans said the one-time cancellation would reduce confusion as lawmakers debated whether to redraw judicial districts or change how judges are chosen.

Democrats argued their First Amendment right to association is being harmed because they use primaries to help rally supporters around favored candidates.

Eagles’ ruling could be appealed, but time is running out: The law canceling the primaries directed a June 18 to June 29 filing window for judicial candidates seeking to run in the Nov. 6 General Election.

The law also says the top vote-getters will win each race, eliminating the need for majority support. Democrats contend that Republicans canceled the primaries to help GOP judicial candidates withstand a Democratic wave this fall by turning each race into a free-for-all.

A bill recently vetoed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, but subject to override votes, would add political party designations next to each candidate’s name on the ballot.

The judge’s “decision is a blow to North Carolina voters and rewards a Republican party determined to further rig our courts before losing power this November,” state Democratic Party Chair Wayne Goodwin said in a release. Goodwin said he would wait to see Eagles’ formal ruling before commenting on specifics.

The possibility for more confusion in the judicial races isn’t over. Other pending bills — one vetoed and another on Cooper’s desk — would alter some judicial election district lines and create some new judgeships for this year’s elections.

These bills and the primary cancellation illustrate the longstanding feud between Cooper and the Republicans over the judiciary since Cooper won the November 2016 election, which gave Democrats a majority on the Supreme Court for the first time in nearly 20 years. Republicans have since made appeals court elections officially partisan races — in 2016, they were officially nonpartisan, with no political affiliations noted on the ballot. Cooper has sued challenging the GOP laws in state court, with mixed results.

Republicans have controlled the legislature since 2011.

Tuesday’s ruling is encouraging to Senate Republicans, “that yet another judge recognized the courtroom is not the place to settle a political dispute brought by the Democratic Party” after voters rejected the party’s preferred candidates and policies, spokeswoman Shelly Carver said.

Earlier in the year, Eagles signed an order that restored appeals court primaries while the case went to trial, but a panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stepped in days before candidate filing otherwise would have occurred in early February and blocked that restoration.

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Staff and wire report