NC Court Race Brings National Implications

By Jim Ellis

North Carolina Chief Justice Cheri Beasley (D) conceded defeat to Associate Justice Paul Newby (R) on Saturday.

Dec. 15, 2020 — On Saturday, North Carolina Chief Justice Cheri Beasley (D) conceded defeat to Associate Justice Paul Newby (R) in a political overtime electoral contest that dragged on for more a month. Though a state election, the result will undoubtedly affect some future congressional elections.

After a full machine recount and a partial sample hand recount, Justice Newby had a 413-vote lead from greater than 5.4 million votes cast, representing another photo finish election victory decided in the 2020 election cycle.

The result almost assuredly affects future national elections because the North Carolina chief justice, even when in a minority as are the Republicans on this particular high court, will set the special judicial panels like the ones that would decide future disputed congressional redistricting cases.

This tangential effect is particularly important because North Carolina is a lock to gain one new congressional seat in national apportionment and appears on the cusp of possibly gaining two considering the rate of growth in this southern state.

Ten years ago, North Carolina missed adding a new seat by approximately 15,000 people, the population figure that allowed Minnesota to retain its eighth district, which became the nation’s 435th CD.

Therefore, being so close to a seat gain in the 2010 census apportionment suggests that North Carolina could be in position to actually gain a pair in the current calculation. If so, the state judicial race decided Saturday would carry even greater importance because the courts will almost assuredly make the final decisions in the coming North Carolina redistricting battle. This is particularly evident when remembering that the state has endured three different congressional district delineations during the current decade.

Saturday’s judicial electoral result made it clear that Gov. Roy Cooper’s (D) appointment decision backfired against his party. While the Democrats held a 6-1 majority on the seven-member court, a 2019 Democratic chief justice vacancy allowed the governor to appoint a replacement, and he chose to elevate Associate Justice Beasley who became the state’s first African American Supreme Court chief justice.

Doing so, however, forced Beasley to relinquish her elected seat in order to become chief justice, which is a separate office. The appointments sent both seats to the 2020 ballot for voters to confirm the selections. Had she not been elevated to the Chief Justice position, Justice Beasley would not have been on the ballot this year. The election results yielded two Republican net gain victories, meaning the new state Supreme Court will now feature four Democrats and three Republicans, the latter of which now controls the chief justice position.

North Carolina redistricting is always contentious. Currently, the Republicans hold an 8-5 majority within the congressional delegation but that is down from the 10-3 split they held before the state Supreme Court re-drew the districts prior to the 2020 elections. This latest iteration changed the previous court-ordered redistricting map from 2015.

The court drew new 2020 Democratic districts in Raleigh and Greensboro that cost GOP Reps. George Holding (R-Raleigh) and Mark Walker (R-Greensboro) their seats, and neither even ran for re-election in what became heavily Democratic domains. Democrats Deborah Ross, the party’s 2016 US Senate nominee, and former university trustee Kathy Manning easily claimed the new seats in the November election. Rep. Walker has already announced his intention to run for what appears to be an open North Carolina US Senate seat in 2022.

Another redistricting oddity occurs in the state’s legislative process. Under North Carolina law, the Governor has no veto power over redistricting. Therefore, the Republican legislature will solely draw the new maps, but they will undoubtedly be challenged in court no matter how the final configuration evolves.

In the new legislature, Republicans will hold a 28-22 majority in the state Senate, and 69-51 in the state House of Representatives. In the 2020 elections, Democrats gained one seat in the state Senate, while Republicans expanded their House majority by four members.

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