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Cooper signs bill restoring state Court of Appeals bench to 15 judges

The State Court of Appeals bench has officially been restored to 15 judges since Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill today reversing a GOP measure that shrunk it to 12 judges.

Senate Bill 75 became law today, almost two years after former Rep. Justin Burr, a Republican who represented Stanly and Montgomery counties, sponsored the original measure shrinking the court, House Bill 239.

“A strong and unbowed, independent judiciary that works as part of our system of checks and balances is critical to our democracy and freedom,” Cooper wrote in a statement after signing the new bill.

Senators Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), Warren Daniel (R-Caldwell) and Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg) filed SB 75 last week. They never responded to requests for comment about what spurred the change of heart to restore the number of judges on the court, though it was likely because litigation over the initial bill shrinking the bench was set to go before the state Supreme Court on Monday.

Cooper challenged the upholding of the law last spring, but it’s likely he will withdraw litigation now that SB 75 was passed. The state Supreme Court starting tomorrow will be made up of five Democratic justices and one Republican, since today is Republican Chief Justice Mark Martin’s last day on the bench. He is resigning to go work as the dean of Regent University School of Law in Virginia Beach, Va.

Cooper appointed Justice Cheri Beasley to take his spot, but has yet to announce who will fill the vacancy she leaves behind on the high court. If he chooses another Democrat, the bench will become a 6-1 Democratic majority.

The partisan makeup of the state Court of Appeals is a little more evenly divided. 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.

Since SB 75 is in place, Cooper can appoint a judge to fill Hunter’s vacancy, bringing it back up to the 15 judges, and potentially adding another Democrat to the bench. It should be noted that much of the work of the courts is not partisan — the partisan makeup of state courts has been brought to the center stage in recent years because GOP lawmakers have tried to change the courts for partisan gain.

Court of Appeals judges work in panels of three and can also hear cases en banc, or altogether, in some instances. One thing SB 75 did not restore was HB 239’s transfer of some work from the Court of Appeals 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).

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