Politics & Government

Former state senator Tamara Barringer of Cary to seek NC Supreme Court seat

The 2020 primaries are still more than a year away. But one unexpected race is already heating up — the contest for a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Tamara Barringer, a former Republican state senator from Cary who lost her re-election bid in 2018, announced she will seek a seat on the state’s highest court in 2020.

“In the last week, I received many calls encouraging me to run for the Supreme Court,” Barringer said in a press release Tuesday. “All of you know my love for the law and the importance of maintaining a strict Constitutional interpretation of the laws passed by the General Assembly. It is imperative that we have justices who refrain from legislating from the bench.”

Her announcement means Barringer, a former Senate Republican, could be in a primary against the son of Senate Republicans’ political boss. Phil Berger Jr., a judge on the N.C. Court of Appeals and the son of N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger, announced last week that he plans to run for the Supreme Court.

Barringer is a lawyer and a UNC-Chapel Hill business professor. Her husband Brent Barringer is also a prominent business attorney and served on the UNC Board of Governors from 2003 to 2012.

While Barringer and Berger may be headed to a Republican primary, that’s not the case so far on the other side of the aisle. One Democrat, N.C. Appeals Court judge Lucy Inman, has announced plans to run.

But candidate filing won’t start for months, so there is still time for the election to get even more crowded.

The N.C. Supreme Court has seven seats. At least two will be up for election in 2020: the associate justice seat that Barringer, Berger and Inman could run for, and the chief justice seat, which so far has just one declared candidate.

Unlike in the federal system, where judges are appointed and serve for life, in North Carolina judges are elected. On the Supreme Court, they serve eight-year terms. In January, Chief Justice Mark Martin announced he would retire before the end of his term. That means that Gov. Roy Cooper will pick a new chief justice to serve until after the 2020 elections.

In the meantime another Supreme Court judge, Paul Newby, announced that he will run for the chief justice job in 2020. That opens up Newby’s associate justice seat on the court, and led to Barringer, Berger and Inman all announcing they plan to run for associate justice.

Once Martin leaves, Newby will be the only Republican on the court.

If Cooper picks a current judge other than Newby to become chief justice until 2020, then there would be a third election for the court in 2020, for that judge’s old seat.

In 2018, a race for a different seat on the Supreme Court was the most prominent statewide election, and it garnered millions of dollars in spending in a race that Democrat Anita Earls won, shifting the balance of the court to a 5-2 Democratic majority.

If Cooper appoints a Democrat to replace Martin until 2020, the court would have a 6-1 Democratic majority.

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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.