An abortion rights rally in front of the US Supreme Court  in Washington on Saturday. (AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades) US Supreme Court Abortion Protest
An abortion rights rally in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington on Saturday. (AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades)

The Democratic nominees are set, but with voting rights and abortion rights in peril, three conservative candidates are on the primary ballot.

Many voters are unaware of perhaps the most important and far-reaching contests on North Carolina’s ballot this year: the elections for state Supreme Court justices. 

There are seven justices on the NC Supreme Court, four Democrats and three Republicans, and each serves an 8-year term. Two of those seats are open for election this year and both are currently held by Democrats, which means Republicans need only win one of those elections to switch the balance of the court.

Elections for judges in NC have become hyper-partisan, but the courts themselves work best with clear, non-partisan application of the law. 

And since the US Supreme Court has veered sharply to the right on several fundamental issues, the party that controls the state courts is very likely to determine how the state moves on a trove of issues with huge implications for equitable access to healthcare, free and fair elections, rights to a living wage, the state’s ability to fight climate change, and whether the state can take away a person’s right to decide for themself whether to have a baby. 

As Business Insider wrote this week, “Elections for state supreme court justices may now be the most direct avenue for voters to shape abortion policy for a generation.” 

The state Democratic and Republican parties certainly see this as one of the most important races of the electoral season, each pouring lots of money and time into their respective campaigns. 

The stakes for this election are high.

Who is on the primary ballot? 

The primary elections tomorrow will determine which candidate represents each party in the general election in November, but the primaries are a little complex with the state supreme court elections. The seats held by Justice Sam Ervin and Justice Robin Hudson, who is retiring, are up for grabs. 

Because the two Republican and Democratic candidates for Hudson’s seat ran unopposed, their primaries were canceled. Judge Lucy Inman, a Democrat, will face Judge Richard Dietz, a Republican, in November.

The Democratic primary was canceled for the Ervin seat as well, because Ervin faced no opposition in his party. But there is a primary to choose which Republican candidate will face him. 

All three Republicans have said their judicial philosophy is based on originalism, the belief that laws and the Constitution must be judged on their meaning at the time they were written, not as something that can be reinterpreted or redefined by subsequent generations or the changing views of what is socially acceptable. 

The conservative theory has been used to argue against expanding voting rights and same-sex marriage. And most recently, it was a big theme of a controversial draft ruling from the US Supreme Court suggesting the Republican-appointed justices will overturn Roe v. Wade.

So let’s take a look at the three Republican candidates on the ballot in tomorrow’s primary.

April Wood

A judge on the NC Court of Appeals since 2021, Wood graduated from Regent University School of Law and was a NC District Court judge from 2002-2020. She has experience as a trial judge, unlike most of the current judges on the court. “Experienced trial court judges are a crucial asset missing from the Supreme Court,” Wood says in a “Judicial Voting Guide,” published by the North Carolina Board of Elections

She has frequently called herself a Christian conservative, says that the Constitution is based on “conservative principles,” and pledges to base her decisions on “conservative, common sense justice,” and “North Carolina values.” She does not say which values or define common sense, however. 

“Throughout my career, I have dedicated myself to the rule of law and have been steadfast in my conviction that no one is above the law, regardless of race, religion, or any other status. Justice requires that judges treat everyone impartially and apply the law equally,” she told the News and Observer.

Trey Allen

Allen is a former clerk to NC Chief Justice Paul Newby and the chief counsel for the NC Administrative Office of the Courts, which provides legal, logistical and budgetary support to the state courts system. Allen graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school, was a judge advocate in the Marines, and served in Iraq. 

The records for potential judges can be hard to gauge, but Allen is close to Justice Newby, who is likely to be a good model for how Allen might rule. Newby dissented in recent high-profile cases, voting with the minority in the NC Supreme Court’s ruling striking down the state’s gerrymandered voting maps. And Newby removed a lower court judge who had ruled that the Republican controlled General Assembly had to adequately fund the state’s school systems. 

In its recent endorsement of Wood over Allen, the editorial department of the News and Observer expressed concern about Allen’s ties to Newby.

“While both candidates are deeply conservative, Allen is closely tied to, and in some respects beholden to, Newby, who appointed him as general counsel to the AOC.”

But, Allen says, “Many people have lost faith in our courts because they believe that activist judges rewrite our Constitution and laws to achieve political goals.”

“Activist judges,” is a common charge from many Republican officials who criticise court rulings establishing the right for LGBTQ people to marry and for people to get an abortion.  

Victoria Prince

Prince is a lawyer with a firm in Lexington, N.C. specializing in family and criminal law. She was admitted to the bar in 2019 and has no experience as a judge. This is her first run for public office.

In the “Judicial Voter Guide” written by the NCBOE, Prince said: “I am not a seasoned judge. While many may criticize what I am not, it is important to see what I am. I am a person that knows that not every case is the same, although they may be similar. I am a trial attorney. I have personally seen how the decisions made in family law, juvenile matters, business, and criminal law have an impact on children, spouses, and families. I am a person that stands by their word and the Constitution. I believe the law applies equally to all regardless of race, religion, or any other status. I am the clarity, the fresh perspective the Supreme Court needs.”