In another example of the North Carolina GOP’s thirst for every ounce of possible power, legislators are now proposing a bill that will push back the state’s mandatory judicial retirement age in order to keep the North Carolina Supreme Court chief justice and a state Court of Appeals judge on the bench, WRAL reported.
Judges in North Carolina are currently forced to retire at 72, but a House bill that has been introduced would raise the mandatory retirement age to 76, thus keeping Chief Justice Paul Newby (72 in 2027) and Judge John Tyson (72 in 2025) from having to retire before their terms are over.
State law says that if there’s a vacancy on the bench – such as a judge retiring – the governor gets to appoint a replacement judge. Under the current law, if Democrats win the gubernatorial election in 2024, the Democratic governor could appoint both Newby and Tyson’s replacements.
The GOP currently has majorities in both the Supreme Court (5-2) and the Court of Appeals (11-4). Forced retirements would allow Democrats to cut into those numbers.
This bill would impact every judge and magistrate in the state, not just those serving at the highest levels, according to WRAL.
Republican Rep. Sarah Stevens, one of the lead sponsors of House Bill 71, told WRAL in an email that she was asked to write the bill by people in the legislative and judicial branches.
Although the state court system didn’t formally request the bill, WRAL reported that the system is in favor of it.
“Several bills to raise the judicial retirement age have been filed in recent years, and [the Administrative Office of the Courts] is generally supportive,” said Graham Wilson, the spokesman for the judicial branch.
HB71 is especially egregious because Democratic Supreme Court Associate Justice Robin Hudson decided not to run for reelection in 2022 because of the law. Hudson served on the state Court of Appeals from 2000 until 2006 when she won election to the state Supreme Court. She won reelection in 2014.
In 2021, Hudson, who turned 71 this month, explained her decision not to run, saying, “It doesn’t make sense to spend more than a year running in order to serve only 13 months of a new term…I would much prefer to spend my time devoted to the work of the Court, without the distraction that a reelection effort requires.”
If HB71 passes, it would also take power away from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Since he began serving as governor in 2017, Cooper has had the opportunity to appoint local judges all across the state. It’s not clear at this time just how many judges who are currently 70 or 71 would be prevented from having to step down if this bill becomes law.
As WRAL highlighted, the NCGOP has previously targeted Cooper’s ability to appoint judges, including introducing a controversial bill several years ago that would have made the Court of Appeals smaller for the express purpose of preventing Cooper from being able to replace three Republican judges who were nearing retirement age.
Republicans eventually took the proposal off the table after Republican Judge Doug McCullough announced he would retire early, before the bill became law, so that Cooper would be able to replace him with a Democrat, according to WRAL. McCullough said he did it as a form of protest against the “improper politicization of the court.”
Republicans have already done their best to destroy the integrity of the state court system by creating laws allowing judicial candidates to raise unlimited amounts of money and by changing judicial races from nonpartisan to partisan.
The new right-wing Supreme Court is also doing its share to de-legitimize its own power by rehearing a redistricting case and a voter ID case after Republicans in the legislature requested they do so. Both cases were decided in late 2022 by the then-Democratic Supreme Court.
There is no reason for either case to be reheard.
“The legal issues are the same; the evidence is the same; and the controlling law is the same,” wrote Democratic Associate Justice Anita Earls in the dissent of the latest order. “The only thing that has changed is the political composition of the Court.”