How far are North Carolina Republicans willing to go to throw an upcoming state Supreme Court election? The GOP-dominated legislature has already altered state law in an effort to protect the incumbent Republican justice and thwart her Democratic challenger. But on Tuesday, the party took even more drastic action to prevent a Democratic victory: It rushed to pass a bill during a special session that will retroactively strip a judicial candidate of his party affiliation. The move is plainly designed to shield the incumbent from Republican competition that could split the GOP vote. Tuesday’s bill isn’t just another legislative coup—it’s a blatant effort by the Legislature to crush separation of powers and shatter judicial independence in the state once and for all.
The saga of the North Carolina Supreme Court goes back to the 2016 election, in which Democrat Michael R. Morgan trounced a Republican incumbent, giving the court a 4–3 liberal majority. Many GOP legislators concluded that Morgan only won because he was listed first on the ballot, without any party affiliation. So, in advance of the 2018 election—in which another GOP incumbent, Barbara Jackson, is up for election—Republicans changed the rules. They added explicit partisan affiliation to state Supreme Court races, and ensured that the Democratic candidate, Anita Earls, would be listed last. Most importantly, the Legislature abolished judicial primaries—hoping that multiple Democrats would compete against each other in the general election, thereby splitting the progressive vote, while no Republican would dare challenge Jackson.
Their plan didn’t work. Instead, Earls, a civil rights attorney, drew no Democratic challengers. Jackson, though, drew a GOP competitor: Chris Anglin, a Raleigh attorney who was actually a registered Democrat until he filed for the race as a Republican. Anglin’s motivations are unclear; he describes himself as a “constitutional Republican” running to “stand up for the independence of the judiciary.” He has also declared that he is running in protest of the North Carolina GOP’s assault on “the judiciary as a coequal branch of government.” Regardless of his intent, Anglin had every right to run as a Republican in the general election when he filed in June.
Republican legislators quickly realized that Anglin’s candidacy effectively foiled their plans to safeguard Jackson’s seat. So, on Tuesday—in the midst of a special session called to deceive voters about six radical GOP ballot measures—the Legislature took aim at Anglin. In just hours, Republicans drafted, introduced, and passed SB 3, which prohibits Supreme Court candidates from running with a party affiliation unless they were registered with that party at least 90 days before filing.
SB 3 obviously targets one candidate: Chris Anglin. The bill asserts that it is necessary because “political organizations” have “made efforts to recruit candidates that could confuse voters”—parroting the Republican claim that Anglin is a Democratic plant. But there is absolutely no evidence that North Carolina Democrats recruited Anglin or secretly masterminded his campaign. (Also, a real plant could easily game the 90-day cutoff in a future election.) This legislation has one goal: to prevent Anglin from running as a Republican in the 2018 state Supreme Court election.
Anglin knows that, too. On Tuesday, he issued a press release addressing the new law and condemning the Legislature’s rash assault on his candidacy:
This evening GOP leaders of the Legislature are once again demonstrating that they have forgotten what it is to be Constitutional Conservatives.
They are so frightened by our campaign and message, that in a stunning act of cowardice, they are taking steps to misrepresent who I am on the ballot. They made the rules, I followed them. This is another example of them changing the rules in the middle of the game. They will stop at nothing to hand pick their judge and undermine our democratic process.
“I chose to run as a Republican for a reason,” he concluded. “To be a voice for Republicans who are appalled at these types of shenanigans that attack our rule of law and the checks and balances of our Republic.” But Republicans in the North Carolina legislature have different ideas. Thanks to their supermajority in the legislature, they easily passed SB 3 over vigorous Democratic opposition, and likely have enough votes to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s inevitable veto.
Still, the battle isn’t over. SB 3 is, to put it lightly, legally suspect. While the Legislature certainly has wide latitude to regulate elections, the North Carolina Constitution requires strict separation of powers, mandating that the “legislative, executive, and supreme judicial powers” be “forever separate and distinct from each other.” North Carolina courts have blocked legislative efforts to manipulate other branches in the past. They may well be skeptical of this novel attempt to dictate the composition of the Supreme Court by changing the rules in the middle of the campaign to disfavor a specific candidate. Anglin told me on Wednesday that he is “considering all options,” and that “if a legal challenge is filed, I am confident it would be successful.”
If Anglin fails to preserve his Republican affiliation, however, the 2018 North Carolina ballot will be one of the most jury-rigged in the state’s history. It will ask voters to approve six constitutional amendments that suppress voting rights and shift more power to the gerrymandered GOP Legislature. These amendments will be summarized in highly misleading captions meant to obscure their actual impact. A Republican candidate for state Supreme Court, Anglin will not be identified as a Republican. Meanwhile, the only Democratic candidate for the seat, Earls, will be listed last due to GOP machinations. The North Carolina Republican Party has launched a ferocious fight to preserve its political dominance. It’s up to voters to decide whether their lawlessness deserves to be rewarded or rejected.