Talented crop running for Supreme Court

The Observer editorial board


Voters go to the polls next week for a rare June congressional primary, but there’s another little-followed race on the ballot that is at least as important: A seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Incumbent Bob Edmunds seeks a third term and is pitted against three challengers: Sabra Faires, Mike Morgan and Dan Robertson. The top two vote-getters face off in November.

It’s a momentous contest because the outcome will determine the court’s partisan and philosophical tilt. And with the N.C. legislature’s appetite for passing controversial laws that end up in court and sometimes lose, the makeup of the bench is more consequential than ever.

The court is officially nonpartisan, but increasingly less so in practice. It is split between four Republicans and three Democrats, with each side voting as a reliable bloc on some of the most polarizing questions.

Voters are fortunate in that all four candidates are competent and three stand out as especially capable. A strong case can be made for each of the three, and how you vote may hinge on which factor you deem most important.

Here’s how we see the candidates:

▪ Bob Edmunds, who was elected to the Supreme Court in 2000, is the only one of the four with experience on the appellate court bench. He is widely regarded as smart, well-versed in the law and with a strong resume. Besides his 16 years on the Supreme Court, he served on the Court of Appeals and was a U.S. attorney and district attorney.

He is also a solidly conservative Republican. He is running radio ads calling on all true conservatives to vote and to ensure that the court stays in conservative control. The Mecklenburg County Republican Party has sent out emails highlighting Edmunds as the conservative choice and scratching out the other names. Former Republican Party officials have explicitly called for the re-election of Edmunds to ensure the court continues to make conservative-friendly rulings as it has on school vouchers, voter ID, redistricting and other issues.

At age 67, he would have to resign a little more than halfway through his term.

▪ Sabra Faires has worked for decades in private practice and a variety of roles in state government. She served as assistant secretary of revenue and knows the tax code intimately. She was a lawyer in the legislature’s bill drafting and fiscal research divisions, and was counsel to House and Senate leadership of each party. She graduated with honors from Davidson College and UNC Law and we talked with several people who have worked closely with her who call her “brilliant.”

Faires is registered as unaffiliated, and if she’s elected the court would be comprised of three Republicans, three Democrats and one independent. She would likely be the most centrist of the group, a considerable asset in an era when the court, which is supposed to be truly impartial, is increasingly politicized.

She has never served as a judge, but her familiarity with the law, state government and the state Constitution is extensive.

▪ Mike Morgan has the most experience as a judge of the four candidates. He spent five years as an administrative law judge, then 10 years as a District Court judge, and now has served as a Superior Court judge the past 11 years. Those who know his work say he is a diligent judge who has also been active in the community. He scored well in an N.C. Bar survey of lawyers, and observers note his calm demeanor and the dignity he brings to the courtroom.

He has a demonstrated record of impartiality, though he is a registered Democrat and many observers believe he would side reliably with the other three Democrats on the court.

▪ Dan Robertson calls himself the “outsider” in the race. He has practiced law in California, Missouri and North Carolina. He was general counsel for Bank of the Carolinas for about six years before he lost his job when the Bank of the Ozarks took over the bank last year. He also holds his securities license and was a financial adviser for UBS.

Voters would not have had a choice of candidates in this race if not for Faires, who sued the state over a law that many saw as intended to protect Edmunds. It created retention elections for the high court, in which incumbents do not face challengers but only an up-or-down retention vote every eight years. With only Edmunds up for reelection, it would have applied solely to him this year. Faires challenged the law as unconstitutional and a panel of Superior Court judges agreed with her unanimously. The Supreme Court, with Edmunds recusing himself, split 3-3, allowing the lower court ruling to stand and reinstating normal elections for the court.

The top three candidates would all perform capably. But we are troubled by Edmunds’ overt political appeals when the state needs a less, not more, political bench.

We give the nod to Faires, based on her intellect, her experience in and knowledge of state government, and, importantly, her independence from either party. We see her centrism as an extremely healthy thing given that the rest of the court would be divided 3-3 along party and philosophical lines.