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North Carolina HB 239: Politics in the Court of Appeals

North Carolina HB 239

North Carolina HB 239 is an effort by the North Carolina State Legislature to play politics with the North Carolina Court of Appeals.  The Court of Appeals is the intermediary appeals state court.  Since the N.C. Supreme Court can

North Carolina Court of Appeals Building

North Carolina Court of Appeals

deny hearing cases, the last appeal for many cases is the N.C. Court of Appeals.  Currently, the Court of Appeals has a huge case load: 1500 appeals and 4,456 separate petitions and motions per year. Currently the Court of Appeals has fifteen judges who sit on three judge panels.   The average number of opinions per judge is 100 opinions per year.  In an effort to deny Governor Roy Cooper the ability to appoint judges, the North Carolina Republican-controlled legislature has passed North Carolina HB 239.  (HB 239).

North Carolina HB 239 Restricts the Governor’s Judicial Appointments

Under previous law, if a judge’s seat became vacant before a term expired, the governor could appoint a replacement until the next election. Under HB239, the seat would simply remain vacant until the Court was whittled down to 12 seats.

Three judges are set to retire during Governor Cooper’s term due to their reaching the mandatory retirement age.  The HB239 strips Governor Cooper from naming the replacements for these seats.

The number of seats on the N.C. Court of Appeals has never been reduced in the history of the Court.  The workload of the Court is expected to increase, as more appeals are coming from the N.C. Industrial Commission, the body that hears all workers’ compensation claims in North Carolina.  In 2016, the General Assembly stripped the governor of the ability to appoint certain judges to the Industrial Commission. This resulted in a Commission that has been seen as mostly pro-employer.

HB 239’s sponsor, Rep. Justin Burr (R- Montgomery, Stanly) denied that the bill was introduced for the purpose of restricting Governor Cooper’s power.  However, the bill was one of several that Burr introduced (HB240, HB 241)  in a recent flurry that seeks to limit Governor Cooper’s powers.  These bills strip the governor from appointing judges to vacant seats in individual judicial districts.

Former N.C. Court of Appeals justices have spoken out against the proposed change, as they note that the Court of Appeals is already overworked.  Both judges and attorneys worry that by reducing the number of judges to hear appeals, citizens will have to wait even longer for opinions as their cases slowly work through a congested court system.   Additionally, Judge Douglas McCullogh, a Republican and member of the Court of Appeals, resigned his seat in protest over the change.

The bipartisan Public Trust and Confidence Committee of North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice, convened by Chief Justice Mark Martin (R), passed a resolution in 2016 urging the General Assembly “to tie the number of judges and justices on a given court to the workload of the relevant court”.   The legislature ignored this resolution in passing HB 239.

The bill passed the legislature and was vetoed by Governor Cooper.  The General Assembly overrode the veto on April 26, 2017 and the bill is now law.   Thus, N.C. citizens will likely have their cases delayed as politicians play politics with North Carolina’s court system.