With so much on the ballot this year, it’s easy to forget that North Carolina has three state Supreme Court races and a slew of appellate contests that will determine whether liberals or conservatives control the state’s top two courts. But like the federal judiciary, the state judiciary plays a vital role that often goes underrecognized.
Case in point: The Democrats have a 6–1 majority on the state Supreme Court following the election of Mike Morgan in 2016, Anita Earls in 2018, and the appointment of Mark Davis last year. With that majority, liberals on the court have provided some semblance of a check on the General Assembly’s power, like when it ruled this summer that the Republicans’ repeal of the Racial Justice Act couldn’t be applied retroactively.
This year, three of those seats are up for grabs, which means the GOP could regain a majority or the Democrats could even solidify theirs. So are five seats on the N.C. Court of Appeals, where the Democrats have a narrow 8–7 majority, and a slew of nonpartisan District Court level races. Apart from civil litigation, this is one of the main ways that criminal justice reform can become a reality—by electing judges who understand that systemic bias and oppression are endemic to the system.
So, to make a long story short, get to know your judicial candidates on the ballot. Here’s a good place to start. —PB
N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice: Cheri Beasley (D)
Chief Justice Cheri Beasley has been a trailblazer in North Carolina politics as the first Black woman to win statewide office without first being appointed. And since becoming chief justice last year, she’s expanded her effort to tackle racism in the criminal justice system. In September, she told NC Policy Watch that she has “developed a commission which will address racial disparities in our courts.”
“We must recognize the legitimate pain and weight of years of disparate treatment that fuels these demonstrations,” Beasley said in June. “We must be willing to hear that message, even when we are saddened by the way it is delivered.”
Her opponent, Paul Newby, is currently the only Republican justice on the state Supreme Court. In 2011, he questioned the relevance of race to the disproportionate incarceration of Black people, and his view hasn’t much changed—earlier this year, he was the lone dissent in the state Supreme Court’s ruling that the repeal of the Racial Justice Act couldn’t be applied retroactively. Vote for Beasley. —PB
N.C. Supreme Court Associate Justice Seat #2: Lucy Inman (D)
Paul Newby, the Supreme Court’s only Republican justice, is vacating his seat to run against Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. Vying to replace him are two current appellate judges: Lucy Inman, who’s been a judge for the past 10 years, and the notorious Phil Berger Jr. Inman believes that racism within the justice system exists (bare minimum, we know) and supports reforms to make the legal system fairer and more accessible.
Berger Jr., on the other hand, has been hit with allegations of campaign-finance violations. As the district attorney of Rockingham County, he also installed a secret eavesdropping system at the court to listen to discussions between defense attorneys and judges, as Triad City Beat reported earlier this year. It’s an easy choice to go with Inman here. —PB
N.C. Supreme Court Associate Justice Seat #4: Mark Davis (D)
Mark Davis, a 2019 Roy Cooper appointee, has served ably on a court that functions as one of the state’s only reliable checks on a Republican-controlled General Assembly that loves passing the most bonkers laws it can get away with. Additionally, he’s written some good opinions for the state Supreme Court. He has affirmed that police officers need a high level of probable cause before they can engage in a search, strengthened basic legal protections for those on probation, and helped establish that just because a drunk guy slept in a church that was missing a microphone the next morning, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the drunk guy stole the microphone.
That last one sounds silly, but Davis’s opinion served as a reminder to investigators and prosecutors throughout the state that the opportunity to commit a crime isn’t tantamount to actually committing it. His opponent, the former state Senator and UNC-Chapel Hill business law professor Tamara Barringer, has done good work legislatively to modernize the state’s foster care system, but her bid for the state’s highest court despite a lack of experience as a judge makes us wary. Mark Davis more than deserves to stay. —DM
N.C. Appeals Judge Seat #4: Tricia Shields (D)
Tricia Shields has an impressive résumé. In 35 years as a trial and appellate lawyer, she’s regularly argued cases in the North Carolina Court of Appeals as well as the state Supreme Court. She’s an adjunct professor at Campbell Law School who was named one of the top 50 female lawyers in the state. She’s got endorsements from the Sierra Club, North Carolina Advocates for Justice, and the North Carolina Association of Educators. She even traveled to Thailand to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary.
Shields’s opponent, the Republican April Wood, is a long-sitting District Court judge who has said she views it as her duty to apply the law as it’s written, even when it was written by a North Carolina legislature that loves passing insane laws. While we appreciate Justice Wood’s service, we’d prefer someone who’s comfortable overturning the status quo rather than simply reinforcing it, which is why we’re picking Shields. —DM
N.C. Appeals Judge Seat #5: Lora Cubbage (D)
The battle over the fifth seat on the Court of Appeals is between two current judges, Lora Cubbage and Fred Gore. In her questionnaire, Cubbage, a Guilford County Superior Court judge, said she would be an independent judge who would invite public financing of elections, and she cited Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg as her judicial role models, which indicates she’d be a moderate. Gore, a Republican, was a longtime prosecutor before becoming a district court judge. He didn’t answer our questionnaire but said in an interview with the conservative North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation that the recent Supreme Court Justice who best reflects his judicial philosophy is Antonin Scalia. We’ll go with Cubbage. —PB
N.C. Appeals Judge Seat #6: Gray Styers (D)
On his website, Gray Styers proudly notes he’s litigated cases in nearly every county in North Carolina, a state where he’s spent his entire legal career. He’s been the President of the Wake County Bar Association, works pro bono as part of Legal Aid of North Carolina’s “Lawyer on the Line” program, and has taught legal ethics courses at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Law. When you combine Styers’s reputation in his field and his practical experience in North Carolina, you end up with a very strong candidate for the Court of Appeals.
Styers is running against a Republican incumbent, Chris Dillon, who in 2018 wrote the opinion that upheld the North Carolina General Assembly’s constitutional amendment instituting voter-ID laws and tax caps. That case wound its way through the courts before getting kicked back to the Court of Appeals, where Dillon wrote yet another opinion upholding the amendments. Judge Dillon has proven himself a fan of voter suppression, which means the guy’s gotta go. —DM
N.C. Appeals Judge Seat #7: Reuben Young (D)
Though Reuben Young is a relative newcomer to the Court of Appeals—he was appointed to the bench by Governor Cooper in 2019—his long career in law makes us confident that he deserves to keep his seat. Over 32 years, Young has served as a prosecutor, a defense attorney, a civil attorney, and a trial judge. Young, a graduate of Howard University and N.C. Central’s law school, has made it clear he’s well aware of the racial bias baked into the justice system and makes it a personal priority to ensure the fair application of the law regardless of who the parties might be. Though Jeff Carpenter, the Republican challenger, is certainly a competent judge, the former state trooper is a bit too originalist for our tastes. —DM
N.C. Appeals Judge Seat #13: Chris Brook (D)
Chris Brook, the longtime former legal director of the state ACLU, argued some of the most high-profile legal cases in the state over the past decade, including HB 2 and voting rights. He also helped found a monthly housing-law clinic at El Centro Hispano in Durham. His opponent, Jefferson Griffin, is a Wake County district court judge and former prosecutor in the Wake County district attorney’s office who describes himself as an “originalist” and has been endorsed by several law-enforcement groups. The courts need fewer Scalia acolytes and more civil-liberties advocates, and Brook has been a great one; he deserves election to a full term. —PB
District Court Judge 10F Seat #2: Timothy Anthony Gunther (D)
As an attorney, Tim Gunther has worked cases in the fields of corporate law, tenant law, family law, and many others. But he takes special pride in his work as a criminal defense attorney. Since 1994, he has worked as a court-appointed lawyer for defendants who can’t afford their own counsel and also volunteers with Project Together, helping folks obtain domestic violence protective orders. Gunther also wants to reform the state’s cash-bond system, which often keeps low-income folks unnecessarily held in jail regardless of their guilt or innocence. He seems like the sort of person who, if elected to the bench, would work hard to make sure the rights of the little guy are upheld as equally as the rights of the big dogs.
While the Republican running for the judgeship, Beth Tanner, has done admirable work with the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, her avowed conservative values gave us pause, especially when we weighed them against Gunther’s calls for bail reform. —DM
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