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Last year, as part of the plan to gerrymander (newly partisan) judicial districts across the state in Republicans’ favor, the GOP-led General Assembly voted to eliminate 2018 judicial primaries, instead throwing all candidates into something of a general-election jungle in November, with the winner needing no more than 30 percent of the vote to prevail. The Democrats sued, arguing that their right to pick the best candidates was being impugned. Yesterday, a federal judge agreed—mostly.

  • From the N&O: “U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles issued an order on Wednesday that, in part, grants a request by Democratic Party officials who sued state lawmakers for canceling primary elections for all judicial races in 2018–from the district courts to the state’s highest court. … Eagles did not, however, apply her order to the district court and superior court rulings, noting that lawmakers were considering redistricting plans for those races.”
  • So Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judicial primaries are happening, but Republicans will still get a chance to redraw judicial districts. Still, Democrats claimed victory. From party chairman Wayne Goodwin: “Restoring people’s right to vote in primaries for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals is an important victory, but we believe that same right should have been extended to our lower courts as well. Make no mistake—this is a major voting rights victory, yet another setback for Republicans’ efforts to rig our judiciary, and is the third time this month alone the courts have shot down Republicans’ attempts to rig our elections.”
  • And Republicans were predictably miffed by judicial tyranny or whatever. From Representative David Lewis and Senator Ralph Hise: “We are disappointed that this Obama-appointed federal judge is once again injecting chaos and confusion into North Carolina elections at the eleventh hour–this time at the behest of the Democratic Party and to the detriment of voters.”

WHAT IT MEANS: As we’ve discussed previously, this is part of a larger goal of overhauling the judiciary, with the end-game perhaps being to eliminate judicial elections altogether and replace them with merit selection—which, depending on how that merit-selection process is devised, might not be a bad thing. The GOP’s argument in eliminating the primaries was to give them time to draw new districts, but those new districts wouldn’t apply to statewide elections. So why are they so bent out of shape about primaries for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals?

  • This might offer a clue: “Eagles pointed out in her order granting partial relief that there ‘will be some 150 judicial races on the ballot in 2018. Although the exact breakdown is not in the record, it appears to include at least one Supreme Court race, three Court of Appeals races, more than 30 superior court races, and more than 115 district court races.’ Two of the state Court of Appeals seats are held by Republicans.”
  • In addition, Democrat and executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice Anita Earls is challenging Republican Barbara Jackson for a Supreme Court spot. [NC Policy Watch]
  • Which is all to say, the Republicans have more to lose, especially if this is a big Dem year.
  • In jungle elections, where you only need 30 percent to win, and where you could have five or six (or more) candidates competing, there’s a big advantage to the party that limits its entrants. So if one Republican’s facing four Dems, even if those Dems have greater cumulative support, if the Republican gets 30 percent, he wins. They also benefit ideologically driven candidates who command the support of a niche of the population but might not have widespread appeal. These things can be chaotic, and, to be honest, I don’t know whether the jungle election would, in fact, actually advantage Republicans—though, judging by the reactions of the parties involved, everyone else seems to think so.
  • Worth noting: This isn’t the Republicans’ first effort to gain a stranglehold on the judiciary. Remember in 2016, when they changed Supreme Court reelections to merit retention to protect Republican Justice Robert Edmunds? The law was struck down, and Edmunds lost.