Republicans appeared headed toward a sweep Tuesday night of five contested seats on the N.C. Court of Appeals, the state’s second most powerful court.
Three incumbent GOP judges appeared headed toward new terms, based on returns with more than 90 percent of the statewide votes counted. A Republican attorney appeared ready to claim a fourth seat. Meanwhile, a longtime Democratic appeals court judge fell farther behind the son of one of the state’s most powerful legislators.
In that race, Republican opponent Phil Berger Jr. continued to build his lead over incumbent Linda Stephens, leading 51 percent to 49 percent.
Stephens has served 10 years on the court. Berger Jr., a former Rockingham County prosecutor, is the son of Senate President Phil Berger, R-Eden. His chances of unseating Stephens were enhanced with the help of his father’s legislative allies.
Singling out the appeals court races, Republican legislators first required the candidates in the 2016 election to list their party affiliations. Legislators then passed a law, with the elder Berger’s backing, that put the names of Republicans, the majority party in the General Assembly, first in each race.
That flip-flopped Berger Jr.’s name with Stephens’ on the ballot. Experts say the first name in a low-profile judicial race can mean up to a 10 percent voting advantage.
In an appeals court race with Charlotte interest, Mecklenburg District Judge Rickye McKoy-Mitchell trailed incumbent Republican Valerie Zachary, 54.4 percent to 45.6 percent.
McKoy-Mitchell has served on the Mecklenburg bench for 18 years and was making her first run for statewide office.
Meanwhile, incumbent Republicans held commanding leads against Wake County opponents in two of the races.
Richard Dietz, appointed to the bench in 2014, led Wake County District Judge Vince Rozier, a Democrat, 54 percent to 46 percent.
Bob Hunter, who has served on the state appeals court and Supreme Court before McCrory reappointed him to the appeals court last year, was up on Democrat and former Wake County Superior Court Judge Abe Jones, 55 percent to 45 percent.
Zachary, a veteran attorney from Yadkin County, was appointed to the appeals court last year by Gov. Pat McCrory and is seeking her first eight-year term. She is married to state Rep. Lee Zachary, R-Yadkinville.
In the final contest, Hunter Murphy, a Waynesville Republican, continued to build his lead over Democrat Margaret Eagles in the three-candidate race to fill the seat of Judge Martha Geer, who retired this year. Murphy had 49 percent; Eagles, the daughter of a former chief appeals court judge, had 45 percent. Donald Ray Buie, an unaffiliated candidate, was third with 5.6 percent.
About the office
The N.C. Court of Appeals is the state’s second highest court and hears appeals from cases handled in the state’s District and Superior courts.
The 15 members work in three-judge panels. The workload is intense. Last year, the court disposed of almost 1,200 appeals and more than 4,000 petitions and motions.
What shaped the race
Politics. The legislature singled out the appeals court races by requiring candidates for the five seats to run under party affiliations.
In a last-minute move, they also changed the order of names in the appeals court races – putting the candidates from the majority party first.
That put Republican Phil Berger Jr., an administrative law judge and the son of North Carolina’s most powerful legislator, first in line in his race. Under a random selection, his opponent, Democratic incumbent Linda Stephens, had been scheduled to appear first.
Linda Stephens seat
Phil Berger Jr., R 50.83%
Linda Stephens, D (i) 49.17%
Martha Geer seat
Hunter Murphy, R 49.35%
Margaret Eagles, D 45.10%
Donald Buie, U 5.56%
Robert N. Hunter Jr. seat
Bob Hunter, R (i) 54.97%
Abe Jones, D 45.03%
Richard Dietz seat
Richard Dietz, R (i) 54.03%
Vince Rozier, D 45.97%
Valerie Zachary seat
Valerie Zachary, R (i) 54.36%
Rickye McKoy-Mitchell, D 45.64%
2,201 of 2,704 precincts reporting plus early votes.