RALEIGH — While justices on the U.S. Supreme Court have a lifetime tenure, North Carolina voters get to decide every few years who serves on the N.C. Supreme Court. And Nov. 6, one seat on the state’s highest court is up for election.
Republican incumbent Barbara Jackson is seeking re-election to the court but is facing two opponents — a fellow Republican challenger, personal injury attorney Chris Anglin; and Democratic challenger Anita Earls, a civil rights attorney.
If Jackson wins, the court will still have a narrow 4-3 liberal majority. If Earls wins, the court’s liberal majority will expand to a 5-2 advantage.
If Anglin wins, the effect would be unclear. He is running as a Republican but has been called “the enemy” by state Republican leaders, who consider him a Democratic plant. He was a registered Democrat until shortly before he joined the race as a Republican and has a Democrat running his campaign. But he has consistently maintained he is a legitimate conservative.
Supreme Court races are always important but can be overshadowed by more high-profile elections. Yet despite the court’s low political profile, its actions have far-reaching influence. Justices decide whether controversial laws should be struck down as unconstitutional or not, and they help shape the legal rules governing everything from political power grabs to criminal trials and child custody battles.
In their off time, they’re responsible for leading initiatives like making state courts more tech-friendly and accessible to people from all walks of life.
However, this year it’s the biggest statewide race on the ballot. Because it will be the first time in years that the candidates will list their political parties, the outcome could depend less on the candidates and issues themselves, and more on whether news out of Washington, D.C., inspires more enthusiasm from Democratic or Republican voters.
“State Supreme Court races don’t necessarily get the voters’ attention that a U.S. senate race or a governor’s race would get — particularly in a midterm,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College near Charlotte. “The early indicator is that Republicans will probably split their votes, and that will help the Democrat. But I would say that in this year’s election specifically, all bets are off.”
The candidates and outside groups supporting them have already spent more than $250,000 on TV ads this year trying to get their message out, and that number could be about to skyrocket.
North Carolina had the country’s most expensive judicial race in 2016, when there was another seat on the state Supreme Court up for grabs and the candidates and outside groups pumped more than $5 million into the race. That could be the case again this year, said Douglas Keith, a judicial elections expert from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
“The outside ads (in 2016) really didn’t start running until about Oct. 19, Oct. 20,” Keith said. “So right about now is when the spending really picks up. Folks just aren’t paying attention until these last few weeks.”
Meet the candidates
In interviews, Earls said she decided to run because the court has issued decisions she found questionable. Jackson gave the same reason for why she first campaigned to become a judge more than a decade ago. Anglin said he is running because he thinks Jackson hasn’t done enough on the bench to fight for separation of powers by keeping the state’s Republican-led legislature in check.
Jackson, 56, has been on the N.C. Supreme Court since 2010 and was on the N.C. Court of Appeals for six years prior to that. From 2015-2017 she led a technology committee focused on increasing access to the court system. Earlier in her career she was a state government lawyer. She worked in the administration of former Republican Gov. Jim Martin and later was the top lawyer in the N.C. Department of Labor under Republican Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry. She got her law degree from UNC.
Earls, 58, has mostly focused on civil rights and voting rights in her career. She is most well-known for leading successful lawsuits against North Carolina’s gerrymandering and voter ID laws as part of her work for the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which she founded in 2007. Previously she worked in the U.S. Department of Justice under former Democratic President Bill Clinton and at the Charlotte law firm founded by civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers. She got her law degree from Yale.
Anglin, 32, owns a solo law firm in Raleigh. He practices many areas of law, with a focus on personal-injury cases. He got his law degree from Elon.
While Earls and Jackson don’t have many positive things to say about each other, both agree they’re the only two candidates in the race with enough experience for voters to seriously consider.
Jackson said that she and Earls “obviously disagree on a lot of things, but she’s been an attorney for 30 years.” Earls said that Anglin, “as an attorney with just seven years of experience,” doesn’t have the background to be a judge on the state’s highest court.
Earlier this year the National Judicial College, which trains and educates judges, interviewed 1,000 judges across the country on that very question. About half of them said a judge needs to have at least 10 years of trial experience as a lawyer first, and nearly all said prospective judges should have at least six years of trial experience.
Anglin defended his experience. While he has been a lawyer only since 2011, he said, he has owned his own practice the entire time, practicing numerous types of civil and criminal law at both the state and federal levels.
“While I have not been a lawyer as long as Justice Jackson or Mrs. Earls, look at what experienced politicians have done to this country,” Anglin said.
He later added: “I have a lot more — recently, the last five years — experience with the issues that are affecting North Carolinians. I’ve sat in small claims court and watched people get evicted.”
Anglin also has a criminal record of a DWI and trespassing, a fact the N.C. GOP publicized and that led Anglin to defend himself.
He pleaded guilty to both while in law school and said he sought alcohol abuse counseling in 2010, has been sober since then, and believes his personal understanding of addiction will help him be a better judge.
On the issues
Judicial candidates frequently refrain from making political promises or giving their opinions on controversial matters, in case it causes them ethical issues down the road when dealing with those issues as a judge.
However, the candidates have been open about their judicial philosophies.
Earls said she always tells voters that judges can’t implement policies — they can only make sure the laws and policies in place are being followed. Gerrymandering is a major issue for her, and she pointed to that as one example where she thought the N.C. Supreme Court has erred in the past. When the court had a Republican majority several years ago, the majority twice upheld redistricting plans drawn by fellow Republicans in the legislature — plans which the U.S. Supreme Court later overturned as unconstitutional gerrymanders.
“Their rulings on the 2011 redistricting plan were twice struck down by the (United States) Supreme Court,” Earls said. She said the U.S. Supreme Court later issued a 9-0 ruling overturning one of the plans the state court had upheld, which she said shows it was “an open and shut case.”
Jackson was one of the judges who upheld those districts the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled unconstitutional, and in a recent interview she defended her work. She also said that while contentious political cases get all the headlines, they’re only a small part of what the court does — such as handling appeals in cases ranging from criminal cases to business disputes and divorce fights.
“Our decisions have been unanimous between 75 and 80 percent of the time,” she said.
Anglin said he thinks Jackson has been too passive, both as a public figure and as a justice, while the state’s judicial branch has lost influence necessary for the state to have good checks and balances. He said Jackson sides with the legislature in too many cases, and said nothing when N.C. GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse suggested the legislature could impeach judges who didn’t rule in Republicans’ favor.
“I don’t think she’s pushed back enough against the encroaching power of the executive and legislative branches,” Anglin said. “She has sat silently by.”
Jackson defended her record, saying it’s important to keep politics out of the courtroom by depending heavily on past rulings and precedents — a legal philosophy known as stare decisis.
“I’m a firm believer in stare decisis, even if I don’t personally agree with the decision.” Jackson said. “Our courts are a cornerstone of Democracy, and public trust is paramount.”
Saying her actions speak for themselves, Jackson pointed to a dissent she wrote recently with liberal justice Michael Morgan, as well as her record in the past of voting to overturn prisoners’ death penalty sentences in some situations.
Earls also touted her own bipartisan record, saying she will be a fair and impartial judge if elected. She said that while she has made a career of civil rights work, she has also been endorsed by law enforcement officers and district attorneys. Her younger brother was murdered 12 years ago, so she said she does not discount the value of police and prosecutors to society.
“I know that communities of color are more often victims of crime,” said Earls, who is biracial.
Earls also said that while much of her courtroom work has been political, she has focused on protecting people’s rights and upholding the law — even when it meant going against her own party.
“I sued Democrats over redistricting plans; I sued Republicans over redistricting plans,” Earls said. “I defended Democratic plans; I defended Republican plans.”
And when she was a member of the N.C. Board of Elections from 2009-2011 as an appointee of Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, Earls said, she voted to fine the campaigns of both Perdue and former Democratic Gov. Mike Easley.
“I’m really committed to equal justice under the law,” Earls said. “And that means treating everyone equally no matter their background.”