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After more than 20 years on the state Supreme Court, Chief Justice Sarah Parker stepped down on Saturday, having reached the mandatory retirement age of 72 in August.

Her picture has already been removed from the court’s website, with one of the newly-appointed temporary chief, Justice Mark Martin, taking its place.

Her legacy drew praise from colleagues and contemporaries alike.

“Sarah is a quintessential professional,” former justice Bob Orr said in this post. “She has a sense of the history and tradition of the court as well as the system. She’s been a good chief justice in difficult times.”

Parker was mindful of those difficult times, especially near the end of her tenure, as the court itself became increasingly politicized and the state’s judicial system struggled under the weight of draconian budget cuts. She drew attention to both of those problems in her remarks to the state bar association this summer.

With her departure the court has just six justices serving — at least for this week.  Next week, Court of Appeals Judge Bob Hunter, Jr. will temporarily fill the spot vacated by Justice Martin.

Six is a tough number for parties awaiting a decision from the state’s highest court. If the justices are split three to three on an issue, then no decision follows. Rather, the decision of the court below stands.

And while the interim ascension of Judge Hunter will make seven, for all practical purposes nothing will change, as he’ll have to recuse himself from ruling in cases on which he sat in the Court of Appeals or in which he hasn’t participated while on the Supreme Court.

That includes the 15 or so cases argued this past year for which a decision is still pending.

And among those are some of the weightiest and most controversial issues facing the court this term: redistricting and the Racial Justice Act.

In those cases, with this composition on the court, it’s at least possible that with six, you get nothing.

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Kudos to Court of Appeals Judge Bob Hunter, Jr., who in recent remarks to the state bar association set some ground rules for his Supreme Court campaign.

Hunter is running against his colleague on the appeals court, Sam Ervin IV, for the seat being vacated by Justice Mark Martin, who’s running for Chief Justice.

In aftermath of a  primary race in which vicious attack ads were launched against sitting justice Robin Hudson, and following similar ads run against Ervin  in the 2012 election,  Hunter stressed the importance of fairness and civility in the process.

As Doug Clark at the News & Record recaps those remarks:

[Hunter and Ervin] have been colleagues for nearly six years, hearing many cases together. Hunter refers in the remarks, made to the North Carolina Bar Association, to Ervin as “my good friend.”

When he ran for the high court in 2012, Ervin was hit by negative ads financed by an independent political organization. Similar attack ads were run by the same group against Justice Robin Hudson in her primary campaign this spring. Ervin said he expects more of the same this fall. I fear he’s right.

In his turn at the podium, Hunter — a Greensboro native who practiced law for many years here — made a remarkable statement. While defending our system of electing judges and the freedom of speech that comes with campaigns, he said this:

“I will not tolerate any untruths about Jimmy Ervin in this campaign.”

Watch the full video here on the NCBA website.

 

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As we sift through the aftermath of this week’s primary elections, folks should check out two new “must reads” from the state’s editorial pages about the bottom-of-the-barrel, big-money attack ads that infected the race for a state Supreme Court seat.

In this essay published in this morning’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer, Melissa Price Kromm of North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections and Bert Brandenburg of the group Justice at Stake in Washington, D.C had this to say:

“After years of avoiding the explosion in judicial election spending nationwide, North Carolina is quickly earning an unwelcome reputation. In the 2011-2012 judicial election cycle, more than $3.5 million was spent for just one state Supreme Court seat; more than $2.8 million of that came from outside groups.

The soaring independent spending in North Carolina is in keeping with national trends since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that unleashed unlimited independent spending on elections

These trends pose a disturbing threat to our courts – that justice might be for sale. Read More

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As noted in the N&O,  Justices Robin Hudson and Cheri Beasley — both of whom are running for re-election to the state Supreme Court — are hosting a “combo-fundraiser” tonight at the Advocates for Justice building, bringing in some signature supporters including former N.C. Chief Justices Henry Frye, Burley Mitchell and James Exum, former Court of Appeals Judges Sidney Eagles Jr. and K. Edward Greene, Cressie Thigpen, David Kirby, Roger and Wade Smith, Phil Baddour, Doug and Peggy Abrams and Janet Ward Black.

But Hudson and Beasley are not the first to kick-off fundraising for the four Supreme Court slots up for grabs in 2014. They’re more likely playing catch up to Justice Mark Martin, who by the end of June of this year had already raised $95,000 for his bid to be elected Chief Justice.

Read his report here.

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North Carolina earned an “F” for judicial financial disclosure, according to a report released this morning by the Center for Public Integrity.

The Center looked at three years of financial records submitted by state supreme court justices and evaluated the enforcement of disclosure rules, making these findings:

  • Forty-two states and the District of Columbia received a failing grade in a Center evaluation of disclosure requirements for supreme court judges.
  • Judges in three states — Montana, Utah and Idaho — aren’t required to file any disclosure reports at all.
  • Despite the poor disclosure rules, the Center’s investigation found 35 examples of questionable gifts, investments overlapping with caseloads as well as other entanglements.
  • In 14 instances over the past three years justices participated in cases where they or their spouses owned stock in companies involved in the litigation.
  • Of the 273 supreme court justices required to disclose stock holdings, 107 reported owning stock.
  • Twelve states rely on self-policing disciplinary bodies — made up of high-court justices themselves — to enforce the courts’ ethical rules.

North Carolina fared relatively well among the states in terms of the disclosure required of supreme court justices (ranked 25th), but less so for judicial discipline, thanks to the “star chamber” bill passed by the General Assembly this summer which, as first reported by Policy Watch in July, allows the justices to discipline themselves in secret.

The report also highlighted instances in which Justices Paul Newby and Robert Edmunds participated in cases despite having financial interests in programs or companies before the court.

In one instance, Newby participated in cases concerning payments from the Tobacco Transition Payment Program, of which he was a beneficiary by virtue of a farm he owns.

In another, Justice Edmunds participated in a case decided in favor of Wells Fargo, despite owning stock in the company.

The Center’s findings come at a time when the transparency and impartiality of the state’s justices, Newby in particular, have been questioned in connection with the pending redistricting lawsuit.  Plaintiffs there had asked Justice Newby to step out of the case, given that his 2012 reelection campaign had received more than a million dollars in contributions from the Republican State Leadership Committee — one of the principal architects of the redistricting plan at issue.   That request was denied without any explanation from the court.

Read the full N.C. report here.