In most election years, the N.C. Court of Appeals generates very little buzz — a series of low-profile races with names few voters recognize.
But a pair of changes is bringing newfound attention to these judicial campaigns, including the statewide races that will decide three of this court’s 15 seats.
For one, voters are seeing political parties on the ballot next to judges’ names for the first time since 2002. The Republican-controlled legislature made the change starting in 2016 for the Court of Appeals and this year for all other judicial races.
Second, the General Assembly eliminated this year’s primary election for the appeals court and all other judicial elections, meaning that more candidates will compete in November — in some cases two from the same party.
More changes could be on the way. The legislature passed a law reducing the court by three seats, which takes effect when judges leave office before their terms are up. Judges on the appeals court serve eight-year terms.
But also, state and federal courts in recent years have handled cases with high political impact. As recently as August, the appeals court weighed in on whether a candidate for the N.C. Supreme Court could run as a Republican, rejecting a stay sought by Republican legislative leaders who suspected the candidate of being a Democratic plant.
Republicans hold a 10-5 edge on the court, so the election would not change the advantage. But some candidates say this year’s race has a more political flavor.
“I think making the races partisan has caused there to be more attempt to appear in front of groups that are party-oriented,” said Judge John Arrowood, a Democrat from Charlotte running to retain his appeals court seat. “I’ve seen less bipartisan forums.”
The court, many candidates note, normally plays little political role and is often described as the workhorse of the state’s appeals system. On its website, the court said each judge can expect to write two opinions a week.
Chuck Kitchen, a Republican lawyer from Swansboro seeking a seat on the court, noted that it handles 80 to 90 percent of all appellate cases — most of them obscure, all of them weighing matters of law rather than facts.
“A lot of people still don’t know what the court is or who the candidates are,” he said.
▪ John Arrowood — Democrat
▪ Andrew Heath — Republican
The race for seat 1 has already raised political eyebrows.
Arrowood was appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper in 2017, shortly after his predecessor Douglas McCullough stepped down 36 days short of mandatory retirement. North Carolina judges have to retire at 72. McCullough, a Republican, said he retired early to keep the General Assembly from eliminating his seat and shrinking the size of the court.
“I did not want my legacy to be the elimination of a seat and the impairment of a court that I have served on,” McCullough said at the time.
Arrowood briefly held a seat after being appointed by Gov. Mike Easley and campaigning unsuccessfully in 2008.
He faces Andrew Heath, a Republican who chaired the N.C. Industrial Commission and became budget director for Gov. Pat McCrory. Heath is now serving as a special Superior Court judge who points to his deep experience with workers’ compensation — not the flashiest cases but essential to business and a core part of the appeals court’s caseload.
Heath said candidates have worked hard to avoid being partisan, but “I do sense some more attention on the courts from the press and in the legal community. There’s been an increase in invoking the courts on political issues.”
▪ Jefferson Griffin — Republican
▪ Tobias (Toby) Hampson — Democrat
▪ Sandra Ray — Republican
Two sitting judges will not seek new terms this year: Ann Marie Calabria and Rick Elmore. So two of three seats up for election in November feature a wide-open contest.
For seat 2, now held by Calabria, Raleigh lawyer Toby Hampson is the only Democrat in the race. Hampson touts his experience as a clerk for several appeals court judges and as a leader of the appellate division at the Raleigh firm Wyrick, Robbins, Yates & Ponton.
“I’m running to support an independent and impartial judiciary,” Hampson said, “but certainly, from talking to voters in different parts of the state, (politics) is definitely something that comes up.”
A Nash County native, Griffin is a Wake County District Court judge with experience as a prosecutor and with the N.C. Army National Guard’s JAG Corps. He said other than a label on the ballot, he hasn’t let politics change his approach.
“I’m not out there campaigning to be a Republican judge or a Democratic judge,” Griffin said. “I’m campaigning to be a judge. It’s an office where you need somebody who’s proven they have the temperament.”
Ray, who grew up in Warsaw and Wrightsville Beach, serves as a District Court judge in New Hanover and Pender counties. She spoke of her 27 years of legal experience, 14 of them as a judge.
In any election, Ray said, voters want to know party affiliation first — partisan race or not. In the past, she said, judges often referred to themselves as conservative.
“The only difference now is parties are endorsing candidates,” she said. “People in general, they ask you whether you’re a Democrat, Republican or unaffiliated anyway.”
In the race between Ray and Griffin, the N.C. Republican Party has endorsed Griffin.
▪ Chuck Kitchen — Republican
▪ Michael Monaco — Libertarian
▪ Allegra Katherine Collins — Democrat
For the seat being vacated by Judge Ron Elmore, Kitchen is the Republican candidate, having served as county attorney in both Alamance and Durham counties, the latter of which he represented before the U.S. Supreme Court. Now an attorney for Holly Ridge near Topsail Island, he called himself the candidate with the most experience arguing before appellate courts.
“The big change isn’t making it overly partisan,” Kitchen said. “The big change is having the parties involved. The local parties put out your signs for you. Otherwise, you’d have to organize something in 100 counties.”
He faces Democrat Allegra Collins, a lawyer from Raleigh who teaches at Campbell University and often handles cases in the appeals court. Collins also worked as a clerk for Linda Stephens, former appeals court judge.
“The voters are more interested in learning about the office because it has been more involved in the legislature’s discussions and the media,” she said. “I am running because I absolutely love appellate law and the work of the court.”
Libertarian Michael Monaco is also on the ballot. His website said he was drawn into the race out of distaste for the 2016 presidential contest, which he described as a sporting event — “and a poor one at that, but with serious consequences for all of us.”
Monaco called voting for judges second in importance only to choosing members of the Council of State — statewide offices including the attorney general and lieutenant governor — and he pledged to better explain the office through YouTube videos. He could not be reached.