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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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Members of the state House gave final approval Wednesday to Senator Thom Goolsby’s bill repealing the Racial Justice Act. Democrats argued that the legislation was still needed because of racial bias in the judicial system.

Republicans rejected appeals to amend the bill, which passed third reading 77-39.

If the Senate approves the changes made by the House, the legislation goes to Governor McCrory’s desk.

To watch a portion of the debate click below:

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The good folks at the ACLU-NC issued this statement late yesterday regarding the House’s passage of SB 306 – the bill to repeal the Racial Justice Act:

“The Racial Justice Act has made it possible to shine a light on widespread and indisputable evidence of racial bias in North Carolina’s death penalty system that needs to be addressed,” said ACLU-NC Policy Director Sarah Preston. “It would be beyond tragic if North Carolina turns its back on that evidence and haphazardly rushes to restart executions, knowing full well that our capital punishment process is plagued by racial bias and other flaws that might very well lead to the execution of innocent people. Even those who support the death penalty should agree that capital sentences must be handed down impartially and with respect for due process, yet this bill makes it harder, if not impossible, to achieve that goal.”

In the first case ever tried under the RJA, North Carolina Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks commuted the sentence of death-row prisoner Marcus Robinson to life in prison without the possibility of parole after finding that the defendant “introduced a wealth of evidence showing the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina. The evidence, largely unrebutted by the state, requires relief in his case and should serve as a clear signal of the need for reform in capital jury selection proceedings in the future.”

The ACLU of North Carolina is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to preserving and expanding the guarantees of individual liberty found in the United States and North Carolina Constitutions and related federal and state civil rights laws. With more than 11,000 members and supporters throughout the state and an office located in Raleigh, the organization achieves its mission through advocacy, public education, community outreach, and when necessary, litigation.

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Lethal injectionIn keeping with its practice of reversing progress and bucking national trends toward saner and more progressive public policies, the state Senate will take up a bill this morning to repeal the Racial Justice Act and jump-start executions. If the bill advances, however, it will do so over the objections of a group of more than 70 college and university professors who have delivered a letter to lawmakers spelling out the flaws in the legislation.

Meanwhile, one of the professors in the group — Appalachian State criminologist Matthew Robinson — authored an op-ed in the Winston-Salem Journal yesterday that does an excellent job of explaining why the proposed legislation is counterproductive. 

“As a professional criminologist who has written numerous articles and books on the factors that produce crimes like murder and how to prevent them, I am confident that the death penalty is a distraction from policies that actually work. So we should stop wasting our time “tinkering with the machinery of death” and get to the hard work of finally getting serious about instituting more effective crime prevention policies.”

You can read Robinson’s entire essay by clicking here.

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Per WRAL:

A North Carolina judge on Thursday commuted the sentences of three death row inmates to life in prison after finding that race played a factor in jury selection for their cases.

Lawyers for Christina “Queen” Walters, Tilmon Golphin and Quintel Augustine argued at a hearing in October that statistics and handwritten notes from prosecutors show racial bias in jury selection.

Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks agreed with their motions for re-sentencing under the state’s Racial Justice Act, saying “the court finds no joy in these conclusions.”

Earlier this year, an inmate became the first to have his sentence commuted to life without parole under the provisions of the 2009 law, which Republicans in the state legislature have sought to repeal since its approval.