The North Carolina Supreme Court is one of only five in the nation where the percentage of justices of color is higher than the state’s population of people of color.
“There’s a national picture that is quite extreme in terms of benches that don’t reflect the communities they serve, and that has serious implications for the public perception of justice,” said Alicia Bannon, managing director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program. “North Carolina, at least on the measures we’re looking at, is much more reflective of the community than most states.”
Bannon co-authored a report released this week called State Supreme Court Diversity. The authors analyzed the demographics of more than 1,600 people who served as justices in the states’ highest courts between 1960 and 2019.
The North Carolina Supreme Court currently has seven justices, 43 percent of whom are considered people of color, according to the report. The general population of the state is comprised of about 37 percent of people of color. People of color includes individuals who are Black, Asian, Latino, Native American, or multiracial.
Bannon praised North Carolina in a phone interview Wednesday for its representation and said it was also notable the high court has three female justices, compared to 17 states that currently only have one sitting female justice.
North Carolina’s demographics are a stark contrast from the report’s overall national findings.
“Across the country, states’ most powerful courts are overwhelmingly white and male, unlike the communities they serve,” said Bannon. “Our judicial system loses credibility with the public when the judges making the rulings don’t reflect the diversity of the people affected by those rulings. Our courts can’t function without the public’s trust.”Our courts can’t function without the public’s trust. - Alicia Bannon Click To Tweet
The report states that 13 states have never seated a person of color as a state Supreme Court justice and 24 states currently lack a justice of color on the bench. People of color make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population but hold only 15 percent of state Supreme Court seats.
White men now make up less than a third of the U.S. population but more than half (56 percent) of state Supreme Court justices, according to the report. Women, on the other hand, make up roughly half the U.S. population, but hold only 36 percent of state Supreme Court seats.
Bannon pointed Wednesday to two areas that helped North Carolina become a standout state for Supreme Court representation. The first was a history of governors appointing people of color to the bench, which gave them a better chance of winning subsequent elections.
Current state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley — the state’s first Black female Chief Justice — is a good example of that, Bannon added. She was appointed to the judiciary by three different Governors — the District Court bench in Cumberland County by Gov. Jim Hunt, the Supreme Court by Gov. Bev Perdue and now the Chief Justice post by current Gov. Roy Cooper.
She also served on the state Court of Appeals, where she was the first Black woman to be elected to statewide office without having first been appointed by a Governor.
The report also highlights how judicial elections, as compared to appointments, have rarely been the path to the Supreme Court bench for people of color. It documents racial disparities in many aspects of state Supreme Court elections: in comparison to white candidates, candidates of color raise less money, face challengers more often as incumbents and receive less support from special interest groups.
The other factor was North Carolina’s history with public financing for judicial candidates, according to Bannon.
“Generally speaking there’s evidence that access to public financing increases the diversity of a candidate pool,” she added. “To preserve and maintain the diversity that they’re seeing, that public financing would really be a valuable reform to bring back to the state.”
North Carolina had public financing available to judges from 2002 to 2012. It allowed candidates to receive a public campaign grant in exchange for stricter spending and fundraising limits, and it reduced the amount of special-interest cash in state court elections.
The report states that prior research and observations by candidates have suggested that public financing can increase the viability of otherwise qualified candidates who lack access to networks of wealthy donors.
Read the full report below.