Recent NC Supreme Court elections show why this year’s race matters

Education advocates marching outside of the North Carolina Supreme Court in support of the Leandro ruling. February 22, 2024. Photo: Dylan Rhoney/Cardinal & Pine

By Dylan Rhoney

June 7, 2024

In 2020, Republicans won three close elections on the North Carolina Supreme Court, paving the way for them to win a majority on the court two years later. Their rulings have had a big impact on the state on key issues from voting rights to education.

Republicans currently hold a 5-2 majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court, giving them the ability to move the court further to the right and issue conservative rulings on key issues like abortion, education, and voting rights. However, just four years ago, it was Democrats who held a 6-1 majority on the Court.

The court began its rightward shift during the 2020 election, after Republican candidates swept their races. Tamara Barringer defeated Justice Mark Davis by 2.4%, Phil Berger, Jr. defeated Appellate Court Judge Lucy Inman by 1.3%, and Justice Paul Newby defeated Chief Justice Cheri Beasley by a mere 401 votes to become the Chief Justice.

In 2022, Republicans Trey Allen and Richard Dietz defeated Inman and Democratic Justice Sam Ervin IV giving Republicans the majority.

The impact of the 2020 and 2022 judicial elections has had a ripple effect on a host of issues, including education and voting rights, and their impacts could be felt in future cases involving abortion rights.

The right-wing court deals a blow to public schools

North Carolina’s Constitution states that residents have the right to an education: “The people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right.”

In 1997, the state Supreme Court affirmed the right to an education in Leandro v. State, ruling that North Carolina’s children must have the “opportunity to receive a sound basic education.” The Court reaffirmed Leandro both in 2004 and most recently on November 4, 2022, just days before Democrats lost their majority.

The 2022 ruling ordered the legislature to fund the state’s public schools in compliance with the Leandro ruling, which directs lawmakers to provide $1.7 billion in funding to support public schools from Pre-K through the high school level. This funding would go towards paying teachers, principals, as well as programs that benefit public school students.

But when the Republican majority took control of the Court, there was a near immediate shift in the Court’s direction.

With a right-wing court, Republican Speaker of the House Tim Moore and President of the Senate Pro Tempore Phil Berger—Justice Berger’s father—petitioned the Court to revisit the Leandro case for a fourth time. Despite multiple rulings that reaffirmed Leandro over the course of 25 years, in October 2023, the Court agreed to hear the case again along party lines.

Some advocates argued that Berger Jr. had a conflict of interest in the matter, given that his father petitioned the Court to rehear the case again. Berger Jr. declined to recuse himself, but asked his fellow justices to vote if he should. In a 4-2 vote along party lines, they voted that he did not have to.

In her dissent, Justice Allison Riggs said “Put bluntly, a son’s vote to deliver his father a campaign ‘win’ in an election year substantially affects the latter’s personal and financial interests.”

The Court heard oral arguments in February, and a decision in the Leandro case is expected later this year.

If the court strikes down Leandro, it would deal a blow to public school funding in NC, which has languished behind the national average for years. Data compiled by The National Education Association (NEA) shows that North Carolina spends nearly $3,500 less per student than the national average.

Such a ruling could also provide further fuel for Republicans to expand their private school voucher program, which the state currently spends $191 million per year on. Projections show that the voucher program could cost the state as much as $800 million dollars per year by 2031.

In the upcoming 2024-2025 school year, there are no longer income caps for those applying for an opportunity scholarship, allowing wealthy families to apply for a scholarship to fund their child’s private education.

The State Office of Budget and Management estimates that funding for the states public schools could decline by $203 to $305 million dollars by the 2026-2027 school year from the expansion of the opportunity scholarship.

Redistricting and Voting Rights

For almost a decade, Republicans in the General Assembly attempted to implement voter ID requirements and passed multiple gerrymandered maps for the state legislature and Congressional races. These laws and maps faced multiple challenges in state and federal courts over a period of years—including rulings from the state Supreme Court.

Republicans first passed voter ID in 2013, which required voters to provide proof of photo identification before they can cast a ballot. Prior to the 2016 presidential election, a federal court struck down the ID law, stating that it was a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In November 2018, the General Assembly placed the issue of voter ID on the ballot as an amendment to the state’s constitution. Voters approved the amendment by a margin of 55.5%-44.5%.

But in September 2021, a three-judge panel found that the amendment was unconstitutional, stating that it was discriminatory towards Black voters. In December 2022, the state Supreme Court, then under Democratic control, affirmed in a 4-3 opinion that the ID law was unconstitutional because it violated the North Carolina Constitution.

“The provisions enacted … were formulated with an impermissible intent to discriminate against African American voters in violation of the North Carolina Constitution,” Justice Anita Earls wrote in her opinion.

As with Leandro, once Republicans took control of the Court, they agreed to rehear the case following a petition from Republican lawyers. The court reheard the case in March 2023 and ultimately issued an opinion authored by Justice Berger Jr., in which the Court reversed its decision from just four months prior and argued that the voter ID bill did not violate the state constitution as had previously been decided.

The Republican-controlled court also agreed to rehear another case that challenged the validity of the congressional and state legislative maps drawn by the General Assembly following the 2020 US Census.

The Democratic-controlled state Supreme Court ruled on the case in early 2022, throwing out the maps. As a result of the redrawn maps ordered by the court, Democrats and Republicans split the state’s 14 Congressional seats evenly at 7-7, though Republicans maintained a supermajority in the state senate, as well as an overall majority in the House.

After Republicans took control of the court after the 2022 elections, they issued a new ruling in the case in April 2023, with Chief Justice Newby authoring the majority opinion. The justices reversed the original decision in the case, finding that the Court had no authority to address issues like partisan gerrymandering, and that the power to draw legislative districts rested with the legislature.

Abortion Rights

While the state Supreme Court has not issued a major ruling on abortion rights following the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June 2022, state courts across the country are now issuing decisions that impact reproductive rights.

An Alabama Supreme Court ruling in February determined that embryos used for in vitro fertilization (IVF) were legally children, leading IVF providers in the state to temporarily halt services. In Florida, the state Supreme Court upheld a six-week abortion ban passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Ron DeSantis. Arizona’s Supreme Court, meanwhile, resurrected an 1864 law that effectively banned abortions in almost all cases except to save the life of the mother. (The legislature and Governor Katie Hobbs have since passed legislation repealing the 1864 ban).

Collectively, these court rulings highlight that the future for the fight for reproductive rights in the United States will take place at the state level.

“State supreme courts are going to be the last word on whether women have the right to access reproductive healthcare, and not just abortion but miscarriage treatment and IVF,” Riggs told Cardinal & Pine in April.

As it stands, with its current make-up, it is likely the North Carolina Supreme Court would issue conservative rulings on the topic of reproductive rights.

But if Riggs defeats Republican Appellate Court Judge Jefferson Griffin in November, and if Democrats can hold Justice Anita Earls’ seat in 2026, they have an opportunity to retake the majority in 2028 and reverse the rightward drift of the court.

Author

  • Dylan Rhoney

    Dylan Rhoney is an App State grad from Morganton who is passionate about travel, politics, history, and all things North Carolina. He lives in Raleigh.

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