The Slatest

North Carolina Court Blocks Republican Effort to Rig State Supreme Court Race

Chris Anglin.
Chris Anglin. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Chris Anglin, Mr.TinDC/Flickr CC.

A North Carolina court issued a preliminary injunction on Monday blocking the General Assembly’s attempt to throw a state Supreme Court race to the Republican incumbent. The court found that the GOP-dominated legislature likely violated the state constitution by stripping a Republican candidate of his party affiliation. Its ruling, if upheld on appeal, will thwart legislators’ efforts to protect the GOP incumbent from Republican challengers in the November election.

The mayhem in North Carolina began in 2017 when the legislature abolished judicial primaries over the veto of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Republicans hoped to shield Republican Justice Barbara Jackson from competitors and hoped that several Democrats would run against each other in the general election. That didn’t happen. Instead, civil rights lawyer Anita Earls filed as the sole Democratic candidate, while Chris Anglin, a Raleigh attorney, filed as a Republican. Anglin was a registered Democrat until just before he joined the race. But he insisted he was running as a “constitutional Republican” to “stand up for the independence of the judiciary”—not as a Democratic plant. (There is no evidence that he colluded with the Democratic Party to spoil Jackson’s candidacy.)

In response, the General Assembly passed a new law that bars Supreme Court candidates from running with a party affiliation unless they were registered with that party at least 90 days before filing. The measure, pushed through during a special session in July, is clearly aimed at Anglin, who filed a lawsuit to preserve his GOP affiliation on the ballot, alleging the law infringed on his rights under the state constitution.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Rebecca Holt agreed in a forceful ruling handed down Monday afternoon. Holt explained that Anglin has “a vested right to have his party affiliation listed on the ballot”—a right the legislature infringed upon by changing the rules and applying them retroactively. This switcheroo “violates fundamental principles of fairness,” Holt found, “thereby violating [Anglin’s] right to due process” under the North Carolina constitution. She also held that the new law “severely burdens” Anglin’s “associational rights” under the state constitution by preventing him from affiliating with his chosen party. And because the law is justified by no compelling or legitimate state interest, she concluded, it must be set aside.

Holt’s decision may not be the last word in this battle. Republicans could appeal the ruling, though time is running out, as ballots must be finalized this week. If they do appeal, the case will probably wind up at the state Supreme Court, where the Democratic majority has not hesitated to rein in legislative power grabs. Jackson will presumably recuse herself from the dispute given its direct bearing on her re-election. So it is quite likely that the high court would affirm Holt’s preliminary injunction, ensuring that Anglin will remain listed as a Republican in November. If that happens, Earls, the Democrat, has an excellent shot at winning the election, since Anglin will probably split the GOP vote. Her victory would give Democrats a 5–2 majority on the court, further emboldening progressive justices to strike down legislative overreach.

Ironically, Anglin’s fight to retain his party affiliation lends credence to his justification for entering the race. Although Republicans continue to allege, without proof, that Anglin is a mere spoiler, he has consistently asserted that he wants to combat “the constant assault on the independent judiciary.” He told me on Monday that Republicans’ last-minute attack on his candidacy has “shown exactly why I’m running. They want to make the judiciary an extension of the legislature.” Luckily for Anglin, they have not yet succeeded.