Partisanship surrounds court race

In their race for a seat on the N.C. Supreme Court, Bob Edmunds and Suzanne Reynolds talk primarily about their experience and credentials.

But the outcome of the race could determine whether Republicans or Democrats have a majority on the state's top court.

And that could have ramifications, for example, when state lawmakers begin redrawing legislative and congressional districts. In the last redistricting, a court with a majority of Republicans voted along party lines to shoot down a plan drawn up by the Democrats who control the legislature.

“Given the North Carolina Supreme Court's history of partisanship in redistricting, which is so important to the political figures in North Carolina, it would be surprising if the politicians aren't paying attention to the political affiliation of the candidates,” said Gene Nichol, a law professor and former dean of UNC Chapel Hill's law school.

Officially, the races are nonpartisan and publicly financed. The intent is to help North Carolinians elect impartial judges.

But the reality is that many voters still pay attention to party affiliation. That makes it hard for party officials, and the candidates themselves, to resist making that distinction.

The N.C. Democratic Party jumped into the statewide judicial races this week, with ads promoting the Democratic judicial candidates in newspapers that primarily serve African American readers. That move triggered nearly $13,000 in additional public funds for each Republican judicial candidate to help them respond.

Edmunds, a Greensboro Republican, and Reynolds, a Winston-Salem Democrat, are downplaying the significance of their political affiliations. They have signed pledges with the N.C. Bar Association requiring them to avoid talking about issues such as abortion or the death penalty, discussing cases pending before the court or leveling partisan attacks at each other.

But both have cited the election's political ramifications at least once on the campaign trail this year. At a Republican Party event in Watauga County, the Boone Mountain Times reported that Edmunds told the crowd: “I'm the one person standing between you and one-party government in North Carolina.” The legislature and the governor's office are controlled by Democrats.

Edmunds later said he regretted the remark, but made it in response to partisan attacks by Democrats. Reynolds, meanwhile, told voters that her Democratic affiliation was relevant, though she offered little explanation why.

State judicial races had been partisan affairs for decades. The candidates' political affiliations were part of the ballot, allowing votes to be cast for or against them in a straight party ticket. That ended in 2002, when state lawmakers made the races nonpartisan and instituted a public financing system.

Edmunds and Reynolds both opted for public financing.

The nonpartisan campaigns have helped elect more female judges, experts say. If Reynolds wins, the seven-member N.C. Supreme Court will have its first female majority.

Reynolds has no prior judicial experience, but touts her work as a law professor and in the legal community. She is the author of Lee's North Carolina Family Law, a three-volume set of books that discusses the legal ramifications of marriage, child custody and other family relationships.

Reynolds said the court could use her academic rigor and her family law expertise. She said the court is hearing more appeals regarding parental rights and other family issues.

Edmunds is seeking his second eight-year term on the court.

Edmunds is a former state and federal prosecutor who was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina from 1986 to 1993. Edmunds then worked as a criminal defense attorney until he was elected to the bench.

The two candidates have divergent opinions about the declining number of written opinions issued by the court. Reynolds said the lack of written opinions – what she calls a record low 32 in the most recent fiscal year – provide little direction to lower court judges.

Edmunds said the lack of opinions reflects the court's efforts at preventing the kind of backlog that plagued the court a decade ago.

He also said the Supreme Court is handling a rising number of split decisions from the N.C. Court of Appeals, and many of those cases typically require a simple affirmation or rejection.

Both candidates have been seeking votes the old fashioned way. They ride in parades, speak at forums and knock on doors.