Two Republicans running for seats on the North Carolina Supreme Court beat their Democratic opponents Tuesday, flipping the partisan makeup of the high court in Republicans’ favor for the first time since 2016. Republicans now hold a 5-2 majority on the panel.
Republican Trey Allen, general counsel for the state court system, defeated sitting Democratic Associate Justice Sam Ervin IV for his seat. And Republican Court of Appeals Judge Richard Dietz beat Democratic Court of Appeals Judge Lucy Inman for an open seat. Dietz will succeed retiring Associate Justice Robin Hudson, a Democrat who has served on the panel since 2007.
Democrats held a slim 4-3 majority on the panel heading into this year. With two Democrat-held seats up for election, Republicans only needed to win one to retake control. The victories will give the party a majority for several years, as the next two seats up for reelection are also held by Democrats.
Democrats have warned that Republican control of the court could push state law to the right on a number of key issues, including abortion access, redistricting and gun control. It may also open the door for Republicans to draw a more politically beneficial congressional map after this election cycle and create a new avenue to weaken Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s policy initiatives.
The judicial elections come in the final months of a tumultuous two-year court term distinguished by several split decisions favoring the Democratic majority. These high-profile rulings, some involving redistricting, criminal justice, education and voter ID laws, have drawn criticism from both sides that the judiciary has become too politicized.
All four supreme court candidates ran on a similar platform: a vow to keep their personal politics from interfering with their rulings.
North Carolina introduced partisan state supreme court elections following the 2016 cycle after the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed legislation to list the judicial candidates' party affiliations on the ballot. Lawmakers introduced the bill shortly after Democrats gained a majority on the high court that November.
While Democrats have been able to quash many GOP bills in recent years, mainly with the threat or application of Cooper’s veto, that power now hangs in the balance as Republicans aim to pick up the few additional seats they need for a supermajority in the General Assembly.
Voters in 32 states cast ballots this year in state supreme court contests, which became spending targets for interest groups nationwide. North Carolina — one of the most closely watched states due to its fragile partisan balance — drew millions in outside spending for the judicial races since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June to let states decide the legality of abortion.
Abortions are legal in the Tar Heel state until 20 weeks of pregnancy, as of an Aug. 17 federal court ruling, with narrow exceptions for medical emergencies that threaten the life of the pregnant person. North Carolina remains one of the few abortion access points in the Southeast as its neighboring states slash abortion protections. Republican legislative leaders have said they plan to consider further abortion restrictions in 2023.
While none of the judicial candidates directly stated their positions on abortion, Ervin and Inman received endorsements from abortion rights proponents, including Planned Parenthood Votes! South Atlantic.