Lawmakers differ on whether court-packing proposal is on the table

Lawmakers differ on whether court-packing proposal is on the table

courts-adobestock-400Veteran House member says matter explored in GOP caucus; others deny it

Republican legislative leaders have remained silent over the last week about whether or not a possible court-packing plan for the North Carolina Supreme Court could come to fruition at a special legislative session expected to be called early next month to deal with the impacts of Hurricane Matthew. Now, they’re making conflicting claims about where things stand.

House Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady from Henderson County said Thursday that expanding the state’s highest court was discussed in House Republican caucus earlier this week, and while representatives were split on the issue, he didn’t get a sense of momentum.

“That’s not where the collective heads in the House and Senate are at this time,” he said, noting the gubernatorial race contention.

McGrady said Speaker Tim Moore, who has not returned requests for comment, “laid out” that adding associate justices to the Supreme Court was being considered and indicated he had some reservations about it. McGrady added that there also hasn’t been time for members to really discuss the issue.

Representatives George Cleveland, R-Onslow; Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth; Marilyn Avila, R-Wake; Rep. Jason Saine, R-Lincoln, Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford; and Rep. Linda Johnson, R-Cabarrus however, said in emails that they had either not heard anything about adding to the Supreme Court or had not discussed it at all with their colleagues.

“This is a rumor and [I have] no idea where it started,” Lambeth said.

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, also said earlier this week that he believed the rumored court-packing scheme was just speculation.

Saine said in an email Thursday that there had not been any discussion by the House leadership as to any expansion of the Supreme Court and that he had no insight into what legislators in general would prefer. Similarly, Avila said she had not discussed the topic with anyone individually or in caucus.

“The extent of my knowledge is what I’ve read in the press so checking with reporters might get you the information you’re looking for,” she said.

Rep. Dan Bishop asked about the origin of the court-packing rumor and said he wanted to discern if there was basis for the story before being asked to comment.

“It’s one thing to react to actual news and another to play into partisan manipulation,” he said in an email.

Individual emails seeking comment from all other Republican House members were not returned.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger was quoted by a Time Warner Cable News reporter on Thursday as saying the possibility of expanding the state’s highest court had not been discussed within the Senate caucus. Berger did not return a request Thursday for comment for this report.

Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, who was the only Republican in the Senate to respond to an email seeking comment, said he has not heard of any discussion among senators about expanding the Supreme Court. He added that he had not devoted any time or research on the topic, so he did not currently have a stance.

State legislators are expected to return to Raleigh in early December for a special session to address the financial needs of those affected by Hurricane Matthew.

As it stands, the state Supreme Court will be flipped to 4-3 Democratic control in January when Justice-Elect Mike Morgan is sworn in. The court-packing scheme, if it went through, could allow Gov. Pat McCrory to appoint two additional associate justices to the bench, and effectively flip it back to a Republican majority in the process.

The North Carolina Constitution allows the addition of up to two associate justices, though whether or not they would have to be elected is still up for debate. Harold Lloyd, professor at Wake Forest University Law School, wrote Wednesday for The Huffington Post that the best reading of the Constitution requires that initial occupants of new seats be elected unless perhaps there is some extraordinary reason requiring otherwise.

When presented with the opportunity to pack the court for their own partisan advantage in recent decades, Democrats chose not exercise it. During the years 1999 through 2010, for example, Democrats controlled the Governor’s office and both houses of the General Assembly, while Republicans held a majority on the court. This included the years 2000 and 2007 through 2010, during which the Republican advantage on the court was only 4 to 3.