State Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin is stepping down midway through the term he won in 2014.
The decision comes just after a proposed way to change how court vacancies are filled was shot down at the polls.
If Republican lawmakers had their way, Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, would have to choose Martin's replacement from a slate of candidates selected by the legislature. But when they asked voters in November to give them that power, the measure was defeated by a wide margin. So the decision remains with the governor.
Martin is one of only two Republicans on the court, along with conservative Justice Paul Newby. With Cooper picking his replacement, the court could lean even more heavily toward Democrats.
That could have an impact on political issues likely to come before the court, including voting rights and the long battle over redistricting.
GOP leaders say Newby will seek the chief justice seat. Phil Berger Jr., an appeals court judge and son of the current state senate leader, has announced plans to run for Newby's seat as an associate justice.
Martin was elected to an 8-year term in 2014. He's stepping down next month to become dean of Regents University law school in Virginia.