For more than 100 years, North Carolina citizens have exercised their right under our constitution to elect justices to the state Supreme Court. On November 8, voters elected Judge Mike Morgan to the Court by a 54-46 margin – a difference of nearly 350,000 votes.
Last Friday Governor McCrory announced a special legislative session beginning on December 13. Although the stated purpose is to help victims of Hurricane Matthew and the wildfires in western North Carolina, it has been widely reported that legislative leaders intend to use the special session to pack the Supreme Court. Seeking to insulate its laws from impartial judicial review, the legislature would add two seats to the Court, to be filled by Governor McCrory in his final days in office.
Under Article IV, Section 6(1) of the North Carolina Constitution, the General Assembly may increase the number of justices from seven to nine. The sole purpose of that constitutional provision, adopted in 1962, was to provide for additional justices if the workload of the Court became too onerous.
In the past, the legislature has only added seats to the appellate courts when the workload demanded it. The workload of the current Court cannot justify its expansion. In 2015 and 2016, Supreme Court justices have written an average of six opinions per justice per year. By contrast, each judge on the Court of Appeals writes more than 100 opinions per year. And in the 1950s, when Article IV, Section 6(1) was proposed, each Supreme Court justice averaged writing 50 opinions per year.
We strongly support Chief Justice Martin’s call for additional funding for our judicial system, but oppose using those scarce funds to add unnecessary positions to the Supreme Court. If hundreds of thousands of additional budget dollars are available, they should go to overburdened trial courts, family courts, prosecutors and victim-witness assistants, indigent defense lawyers, clerks, probation officers, and technology improvements.
Expansion of the Court should occur only after a joint request by the Chief Justice and the Administrative Office of the Courts based on solid empirical data, followed by committee hearings and debate, not rushed through a special session that was convened to help victims of natural disasters.
If the General Assembly packs the Court, it will seize control of the judiciary, undermining the system of checks and balances that is essential to our democracy. The citizens of North Carolina deserve a Supreme Court that will exercise judicial independence, not one that will rubber stamp unconstitutional legislation.
What can you do?
- Contact your legislators and ask for their commitment to oppose any court-packing bill.
- Contact Governor McCrory’s office. You can call Gov. McCrory’s office at 919-814-2050. If you do this, choose option to talk to someone instead of leaving a message. You can also email the Governor. When you contact the Governor’s office, ask him to declare that he will veto any court-packing bill.
- Forward this message to your friends and family.
Your voice matters. If the people speak up between now and December 13, the court-packing plan will never see the light of day.
Guy W. Crabtree is a partner with Crabtree, Carpenter & Connolly, PLLC, in Durham, NC.