Judge Lucy Inman. (Photo from her campaign website.) NC Supreme Court Elections
Judge Lucy Inman. (Photo from her campaign website.)

Two seats are up for election on a court that could make the last call on things like abortion rights, gerrymandering, and more. 

In the 2022 midterm election, the ballot is overflowing with substance. North Carolinian voters will ultimately decide whether the state protects abortion rights, if the US Congress addresses climate change, or even if free and fair elections will continue unhindered

And all of those issues might hinge on the results of the elections for seats on the NC Supreme Court. 

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.

These elections have become hyper-partisan over recent years and groups supporting both parties have been pouring money and attention into the state’s judicial elections this year. 

And since the US Supreme Court has veered sharply to the right on several fundamental issues, the stakes for this election are high.

But the courts work best with clear, non-partisan application of the law, and though these elections are political, the candidates are not typical politicians, and are prohibited from commenting on issues that may come before the court, even if those issues are the ones voters are most worried about and tend to base their voting decisions on. 

[Here is our breakdown of how the NC Supreme Court candidates’ records suggest they would likely vote if abortion came down to the state’s high court. And here is our conversation with Justice Sam Ervin, a Democrat who is running for re-election against Republican Trey Allen, currently the general counsel for NC’s court system.]

We spoke with Judge Lucy Inman, a Democrat who is running against Republican Judge Richard Dietz, for the open seat of Robin Hudson, a Democrat who is retiring. Both Inman and Dietz are judges on the NC Court of Appeals. 

Inman talked of the unique challenges for candidates in judicial elections and the voters deciding who to support.

Here is our conversation, edited lightly for time and clarity.

Cardinal & Pine: 

You’re running for the state Supreme Court seat, you’re on the appellate court. Is there any difference between how those courts operate, and will you be exercising a different muscle on the Supreme Court than you would on the appellate?

Inman: 

There are some similarities, but there are also some really significant differences. 

The North Carolina Court of Appeals is an intermediate appellate court, and what that means is the Court of Appeals reviews a high volume of cases that are appealed from the lower courts in every criminal case, in every civil case, and every administrative case. As long as actions are taken within time deadlines, a party who is dissatisfied with the result in the trial court or in an administrative agency has a right to appeal that ruling. And 95% of those appeals go to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. 

The only cases that go, as a matter of right to the Supreme Court are death penalty cases. All non-capital murder cases go to the Court of Appeals, but the death penalty cases go to the Supreme Court. Business Court decisions, utility rate-making decisions are cases that go straight to the Supreme Court as a matter of Right.

The North Carolina Supreme Court has a smaller number of cases to decide, but for its decisions interpreting the North Carolina Constitution, interpreting North Carolina statute and applying the common law, the decisions by the North Carolina Supreme Court, the North Carolina Supreme Court has the very last word on those issues. 

Cardinal & Pine:

But with partisan elections of those NC Supreme Court judges, does that mean that the final word can be temporary if someone can just bring a similar case before the new Supreme Court, especially for a lot of these hot button issues, and get a new result? 

Inman:

Well, a fundamental doctrine of law is the doctrine of stare decisis, which is Latin for let the decision stand. It’s fundamental to the stability of our judiciary. It’s fundamental to the rule of law. When personnel on a court changes and [the new] judges decide that they are more enlightened and smarter than precedent, we lose the rule of law and it’s replaced with the rule of man.

Cardinal & Pine:

I assume that as a judge who could become a justice on the Supreme Court, you are not allowed to talk about how you would or would not rule in a certain case if it were to come before you? 

Inman:

Correct.

Cardinal & Pine:

And I assume it’s also true that as a judge your job would be, any judge’s job would be, to decide a case based on the merits of that specific case.

Inman:

Correct.

Cardinal & Pine:

But are there any bedrock principles to your judicial philosophy that aren’t dependent upon the specifics or context of a case?

Inman:

Well, I’ve already mentioned the doctrine of stare decisis, which applies in every case. And it doesn’t just mean that the substantive rulings of the North Carolina Supreme Court are binding on the courts in North Carolina. 

It also means the rules of analysis that have been adopted by the North Carolina Supreme Court are part of the precedent. And by that I mean we have precedent from the North Carolina Supreme Court about the factors and the standards that judges and justices should employ when interpreting our state constitution. And those holdings are just as binding precedent as the ultimate substantive conclusion in a case. 

In a decision written in 1992 when I was working as a law clerk to the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, the Court issued a decision in a case called Quorum vs. The University of North Carolina. 

It was a university professor who opposed splitting up and moving some archival materials, some sort of library. And when his bosses just basically said, ‘this is going to happen,’ he disagreed with this happening. And I believe that he may have been fired or demoted, but some disciplinary action was taken. And he sued for violation of his constitutional right under the North Carolina State Constitution.

And this decision, which was written by Justice Harry Martin, said a state judiciary has a responsibility to protect the state constitutional rights of the citizens. This obligation to protect the fundamental rights of individuals is as old as the state. And he went on to say that we give our constitution a liberal interpretation in favor of its citizens with respect to those provisions which were designed to safeguard the liberty and security of the citizens in regard to both person and property. So that’s precedent, which says that when we’re looking at the North Carolina State Constitution and we’re considering its protections for citizens, we give it a liberal interpretation in favor of protecting these citizens.

It says “we give our constitution a liberal interpretation in favor of its citizens with respect to those provisions which were designed to safeguard the liberty and security of the citizens in regard to both person and property.” So it doesn’t say every decision made by the Supreme Court needs to be a liberal one or give a liberal interpretation. But that is still precedent, that’s established precedent. 

To your point earlier, is it possible that the North Carolina Supreme Court in the future, or a majority of the Supreme Court could revisit that opinion and overturn that precedent? It’s possible. I think it would be quite destabilizing.

Cardinal & Pine:

Does that mean though that because the state Supreme Court is the final word on these issues, that the court wouldn’t have to formally overturn the procedural precedent, but rather just not follow it in a decision?

Inman:

When a court has a case that is not distinguishable from a previous case, if a court can distinguish a case from a previous case, then it doesn’t have to follow the precedent from the previous case. But when a court is faced with a case that is indistinguishable, then yeah, it does. It has to overturn the precedent in order to not follow the precedent.

Cardinal & Pine:

Is the court the one deciding whether it’s indistinguishable or distinguishable between a different case?

Inman:

Yes, it is.

Cardinal & Pine:

And this may be too vague for you to answer, but if you were to be elected to the state Supreme Court, what kind of metrics would you use to even decide that? Whether a case was distinguishable or indistinguishable from previous cases that would decide whether you had to follow precedent or not?

Inman:

Well, that’s where the requirement of intellectual honesty comes in for every justice. Before I ever went to law school, I worked as a newspaper reporter. That’s how I found myself in court and fell in love with the justice system. And I really believe that judges and justices should be the truth tellers of our government. 

It’s just so fundamental to public confidence in the judiciary that we believe that judges and justices are telling us the truth. And that means an honest review and assessment of the facts of each case of the record in each case. And then also an honest review of the legal authorities that a decision might be based on. And then an honest application of different rules of interpretation. 

And you can read in divided opinions from many courts, judges, and justices disagreeing with one another about which is the most accurate assessment, characterization, description, of the record or legal authority.

Cardinal & Pine:

Does that mean then that you can have two honest and differing opinions on all the things that you talked about?

Inman:

You can, yes. You can have two honest and differing opinions. And I would say that just because you disagree with another judge doesn’t mean that judge is corrupt or dishonest or not doing his or her best.

Cardinal & Pine:

Is there an overlap or a link with the idea of protecting the integrity of the justice system, which you said previously is a priority, and reminding voters that you can have a good faith disagreement with another justice, even on really important issues?

Inman:

Yes, you can have a good faith disagreement even on important issues if your disagreement is born out of intellectually honest analysis, different prioritization of factors in analysis, that’s one thing. 

And the key to integrity in the justice system, at least as demonstrated by the Supreme Court, I would say, is a judicial philosophy that I’ve never forgotten from my middle school math class. Show your work. If you decide a case first and then think backward about how you’re going to rationalize it, that’s not integrity.

If you work through the facts and the law in a careful analysis and put yourself through the discipline of describing those steps, showing those that work in the end, and do it in language that every person can understand, then I think the public can understand how the court reached a decision. Even if they don’t agree with it, they can understand how that happened.

And then really from the court’s perspective and from the justices perspective, and I bet you’ve written and edited a lot, you’ve had this experience and that is, you’ve got a story idea, you’ve got an outline, you’ve got a premise, you’re pretty sure you know how this project’s going to go. Maybe you go out and you do all the reporting and you sit down and you’re writing it and it won’t write the way you thought it was going to write. You get stopped. You run into a dead end and you have to say, ‘This isn’t working, I have to stop right here. I have to go back and reassess how I got to where I am and figure out how common sense and consistency would apply here.’ So that to me is the most important tool and the most important test to ensure integrity.

Cardinal & Pine:

I know judges are not allowed to speak about issues that might come before their court, which makes them quite an unusual kind of candidate in an election. So I’m going to deliberately ask you questions you can’t answer. Can you say anything about how you would rule as a state Supreme Court justice on abortion rights?

Inman:

No.

Cardinal & Pine:

Can you say anything about how you would rule if Moore v. Harper finds its way back to the state Supreme Court?

Inman:

No.

Cardinal & Pine:

And what about the issue of partisan gerrymandering?

Inman:

Well, the North Carolina Supreme Court held in February that the North Carolina Constitution through a collection of provisions guarantee each voter that his or her vote counts as much as the vote of any other voter, that extreme partisan gerrymandering, and I don’t want to misquote the decision, but extreme partisan gerrymandering that serves to keep elected officials entrenched in their positions rather than to allow citizens to choose their representatives violates the state constitution. That’s precedent. That’s precedent. 

Cardinal & Pine:

That decision was 4-3, with all Democrats on the court voting for and all Republicans voting against. Are you able to say whether you would have ruled in the majority on that case if you had been on the court?

Inman:

I’m not, I can’t say that.

But what I can tell you, and I’m not talking about any judges now, but I’m talking about political actors out there in the world, pundits, the ink wasn’t dry on that decision before these folks took to the airwaves and said, “Hey folks, there’s two seats on the North Carolina Supreme Court on the ballot this year. If a Republican party can take just one of them, we can have a new majority and it can overturn that terrible precedent before the next election cycle.” That’s like replacing the rule of law with the rule of man.

Cardinal & Pine:

My final question is big picture: Why should the Supreme Court elections matter to North Carolinians, and why should they make sure to vote in them?

Inman:

State Supreme Court elections are important to every person in North Carolina because the Supreme Court’s decisions affect all of our lives. Even if we never go to court, our Supreme Court’s decisions affect health, safety, education, voting, and the very stability of our democracy.

This year, voters, people need to vote in these Supreme Court races because at this time, North Carolina is losing one of its finest jurists to retirement at a time when state courts across the nation are being asked to make some of the most difficult decisions in our lifetimes. As the United States Supreme Court defers critical legal issues to state Supreme Courts, state Supreme Court justices have greater responsibility than ever before.