N.C. Republicans may propose court-packing bill to keep control of state supreme court

Could the North Carolina General Assembly add more Republicans to the State Supreme Court? It's a possibility, some experts say. 

Last Tuesday, registered Democrat Michael Morgan defeated incumbent Bob Edmunds for a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court, giving the Democrats a 4-3 majority. But the Republican-dominated North Carolina General Assembly may propose a bill creating two additional seats, according to a report by North Carolina Policy Watch. This would allow Republican Gov. Pat McCrory to appoint two new justices and guarantee Republican control of the court, even if he loses the gubernatorial race.

However, a spokesperson for Republican Tim Moore, speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, told The New Republic Wednesday that recent headlines about the possibility of new court appointments were based on "rumors." Moore's spokesperson "declined to confirm or deny the existence of the alleged plan." 

Bob Phillips—executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, a nonprofit lobbying organization—noted that such a bill could undermine the recent elections. 

“It’s almost a statement that says elections don’t really matter because the election last week did change the balance of our state supreme court, and this would flip it in another way back to the majority party,” he said.

The law could also prolong debate about the court even after the election season ended, noted David Rohde, Ernestine Friedl professor of political science.

“Such an act would certainly intensify the polarization and inter-party hostility in the state,” he wrote.

Rohde added that the bill is "just speculation" as of now.

Phillips noted that although the bill is only a rumor, he was still disturbed that certain members of the General Assembly had even discussed the move.

“What I do think is interesting is neither the leadership nor the governor has come out and emphatically denied that this is something that they may do, so I think that’s pretty telling,” Phillips said.

The offices of Republican leaders such as Gov. Pat McCrory, Tim Moore—speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives—and Phil Berger—president pro tempore of the North Carolina Senate—could not be reached for comment.

Similar bills to expand state supreme courts have been introduced elsewhere. In May, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey appointed two extra justices to the Arizona Supreme Court, expanding its size from five to seven. The same month, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal supported a bill to increase the number of justices on the Georgia Supreme Court from seven to nine. 

Phillips noted that such bills undermine the public’s trust in government—a key area of concern during the 2016 presidential election campaigns.

“It does reinforce a view with many people that everything’s rigged,” he said.

In the coming months, the composition of the North Carolina Supreme Court could determine rulings on important cases, such as legislative district gerrymandering. 

“Gerrymandering is all about one thing—gaming the system to maintain power for the party in power,” Phillips said. “Packing the court, in this instance, could be very much the same thing.”

McCrory may also seek to challenge the gubernatorial election results in court, Phillips noted. He currently narrowly trails Democrat Roy Cooper, although the results have not yet been finalized. 


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