How Republicans stripped three highly qualified judges of their jobs

Mecklenburg’s courthouse will get new judges after Republican gerrymandered led to the defeat of two strong incumbent judges.
Mecklenburg’s courthouse will get new judges after Republican gerrymandered led to the defeat of two strong incumbent judges.

Republican legislators have been monkeying with North Carolina’s judicial system, hoping to politicize the courts in their party’s favor. In Tuesday’s election, one move blew up in their faces, but another went exactly according to plan, and it’s costing Mecklenburg a couple of highly qualified judges.

First, the move that backfired. Legislators passed a law in 2017 doing away with judicial primaries. Their motive appeared to be to help reelect Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jackson, a Republican. Without a primary, they reasoned, Republicans would coalesce around the incumbent Jackson while multiple Democrats would jump in and split the Democratic vote in the general election.

Then along came Chris Anglin to mess it all up. While Democrats got behind Anita Earls, Anglin switched his party affiliation from Democrat and filed for the seat as a Republican. It was cynical gamesmanship, prompted by Republicans’ own gamesmanship. Republicans then tried to remove Anglin’s party affiliation from the ballot.

The NC Democratic Party wants to question the state Republican Party's executive director under oath to find out what he knew and any communications he had with Republican legislative leaders about a law canceling judicial primaries.

A court blocked that, so on Tuesday there was Anglin listed as a Republican, alongside the Republican Jackson and the Democratic Earls. What happened was predictable: Voters, who have little cue beyond party on which to base their preference, split the Republican vote. Earls took about 50 percent and Jackson and Anglin split the Republican vote, 34-16. Republican legislators are no doubt kicking themselves for helping give Democrats a 5-2 majority on the high court.

Now, the move that went according to plan: Led by Mecklenburg Republican Sen. Dan Bishop, lawmakers created new Mecklenburg judicial districts this summer and gerrymandered them to get Republicans elected to district and superior courts. Previously, district court judges were elected by the entire county. That made sense, since they serve the whole county.

Under the new plan, candidates for the county’s 21 district court judge seats run in eight districts. A couple of them are drastically gerrymandered, including District 26A. That one starts in Eastover and Myers Park, then sprouts tentacles through south Charlotte and out to Matthews and Mint Hill.

It is designed to elect Republicans, and that is exactly what it did Tuesday. Three incumbent judges sought to hold onto their seats in the district – Democrats Donald Cureton Jr. and Alicia Brooks and Republican Sean Smith. Cureton and Brooks lost narrowly to Republican challengers, and Smith won comfortably.

Republicans went three for three. There’s nothing wrong with electing Republican judges, of course. But there is almost nothing political about what these local judges do, so candidates should be judged on their experience and legal acumen. In this case, highly qualified incumbent judges respected by most in the local legal community lost their jobs solely because of the D by their names, and the R next to their opponents’.

Brooks’s opponent, Michael Stading, is well-qualified. Cureton’s loss, though, should be especially hard for Mecklenburg residents to swallow. He is widely admired by other judges and by lawyers who appear before him. His performance scores in an NC Bar survey were the highest of any judge on the Mecklenburg ballot, by far. In that survey, 91 percent of lawyers said Cureton’s knowledge of law was good or excellent and 89 percent said he capably analyzes legal and factual issues. His opponent, Paulina Havelka, registered 39 and 38 percent on those measures. That gap mirrors what many Mecklenburg court observers have told us about the two.

So legislators meddled twice. In one instance they got what they wanted and in one they didn’t. In both cases the voters would have been better off if legislators hadn’t tried to game the system.