Almost two years after passing a measure to shrink the state Court of Appeals from 15 judges to 12, Republican lawmakers have introduced legislation to reverse their decision.
Senators Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), Warren Daniel (R-Caldwell) and Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg) filed Senate Bill 75 Monday. They did not immediately respond to a request for comment about what spurred the change of heart.
Hise, Daniel and Bishop all voted to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the original bill reducing the Court of Appeals, House Bill 239. Bishop was absent when the measure was first passed, but he was a supporter in committee meetings. The other two voted in favor of the original bill.
Former Rep. Justin Burr, a Republican who represented Stanly and Montgomery counties, sponsored the measure shrinking the court. It was one of several bills he pushed to change the state judiciary for partisan gain — those efforts led to his loss in the primary election last year.
Doug McCullough, a Republican judge who retired early from the Court of Appeals to prevent HB 239 from taking effect, said Tuesday morning in a phone interview he thinks the new bill restoring the number of judges was a good idea.
“I’m glad to see that the legislature realizes they made a mistake, and I hope that they correct it,” he said.
McCullough didn’t know the bill was going to be filed and he could only speculate about why Republicans changed their minds from their decision to shrink the court. He wondered if Phil Berger Jr., a Court of Appeals judge who recently announced he would run for a Supreme Court seat next year, told his father, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger that they couldn’t function with an odd number of judges.
Republican judge Robert Hunter Jr. will reach mandatory retirement at the end of this month. His departure would bring the court down to 14 judges — eight Republicans and six Democrats.
If he leaves along with his resources, McCullough said, the heavy workload will fall on the other judges on the court.
“We don’t work like other courts,” the retiree said.
One thing SB 75 doesn’t reverse is the workload HB 239 took from the Court of Appeals and rerouted to the state Supreme Court — class action certification appeals, business appeals and 3.1 case appeals (which involve children and issues of abuse and neglect and termination of parental rights).
McCullough said the Court of Appeals perfected an expedited process for those cases involving child issues and termination of parental rights. He described the cases as very technical and not of the same constitutional frame that Supreme Court justices are used to working in.
“I hope that they reverse that matter as well,” he said.
If SB 75 is passed, Gov. Roy Cooper would have the authority to appoint judges to fill the vacancy left by Hunter’s departure.
(This post has been updated. An earlier version inaccurately stated that Judge Ann Marie Calabria would be retiring in October of 2019. Judge Calabria actually left the court last month and was replaced by Judge Toby Hampson, who was elected last November.)