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RALEIGH — With a 3-3 deadlock, the state Supreme Court has let stand a lower court ruling, allowing an open election for a seat on the State Supreme Court this year.

The General Assembly had sought to change the process used to elect justices. The plan called for up-or-down votes on the incumbents. Only if a justice was voted out could others run for a seat on the court.

Attorney Sabra Faires sued, arguing the law ran violated the state constitution, which says justices “shall be elected.” She argued the law unjustly barred her from running for a seat on the court.

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Justice Robert H. Edmunds Jr., the juror Faires sought to challenge, recused himself, leaving six justices to hear the case. Edmunds is a Republican; a victory for the legislature’s plan would likely have made it more difficult for Democrats to break the 4-3 Republican majority on the court.

While three justices aligned with each party heard the case, the decision does not identify how individual justices voted.

“I was clearly pleased, because it means that I win,” Faires told Carolina Public Press. “And I was dismayed that it was a 3-3 split because that indicates to me that it was likely partisan and at least in the self-interest of those who voted for it.”

Her attorney, Michael Crowell, until recently a professor at the UNC School of Government, said judicial reform is needed, but the legislature’s approach was flawed.

We need to talk seriously about reforming the way judges are elected, but you cannot allow the legislature to decide each session who will have an opponent and who will not,” he told Carolina Public Press in an email.

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The state solicitor general has defended the law as constitutional, contending that the retention votes counted as elections. The state Attorney General’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

While the tie means the lower court ruling remains in force, it also means there’s no bar to a similar question coming back before the court in the future.

In the meantime, the primary for Edmunds’ seat is set for June 7. He’ll face three challengers, including Faires.

Ted Strong

Ted Strong is a contributing reporter to Carolina Public Press. Contact him at ted.g.strong@gmail.com.

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