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North Carolina Republicans' Latest Power Grab: State Judicial Appointments


Politicians in North Carolina have been fighting intensely across the partisan divide for months now. In the latest move, Republican lawmakers are trying to strip the state's Democratic governor of more powers, this time his ability to appoint some judges. As WUNC's Jeff Tiberii reports, the governor has gotten support from a surprising ally.

JEFF TIBERII, BYLINE: Many of the high-profile laws passed by North Carolina's Republican-dominated legislature in recent years have wound up in court. Now those lawmakers are trying to influence the future balance of the state's second-highest court by cutting the number of seats from 15 to 12. Justin Burr is a Republican and one of the bill's sponsors in the State House.


JUSTIN BURR: Judicial branch reports have shown that over the last 10 or so years, the overall caseload of the Court of Appeals has steadily decreased.

TIBERII: Legal experts disagree and say the court's workload dropped only slightly.

MARIN LEVY: This is a pretty significant push I think to undercut the independence of the judiciary.

TIBERII: Marin Levy is a law professor at Duke University.

LEVY: We've certainly seen ebbs and flows of this over time, but this is I think a moment at least within the state of North Carolina where we are seeing an uptick.

TIBERII: This is just the latest battle between Democratic Governor Roy Cooper and the Republican-controlled legislature. Back in December before Cooper even took office, lawmakers stripped him of some authority and appointment powers. Critics said those actions represented a lack of respect for democratic norms. Democrat Darren Jackson says Republicans are politicizing the state's courts.


DARREN JACKSON: No one I can tell has asked us to do this - not the Court of Appeals, not the Supreme Court, not a lawyer's group, not the business community, nobody.

TIBERII: Judges in North Carolina must retire when they turn 72. The governor currently has the power to name replacements to the appellate court, but the bill passed by Republicans would remove that appointment power from the governor. Governor Cooper vetoed the bill. Although, lawmakers are working to override him. Judge Doug McCullough has spent more than 14 years on the Court of Appeals and is one month shy of his 72nd birthday.

DOUGLAS MCCULLOUGH: We are currently one of the best appellate courts in the country. There are law review articles that have been written about efficiency in the courts, and North Carolina has ranked very high in some of those articles.

TIBERII: McCullough is a Republican, but earlier this week, he made the surprising decision to retire effective immediately. And he says the Republican bill to change the court is the reason he's stepping down.

MCCULLOUGH: Do I just stand by and watch my court be hurt and watch the people of this state be harmed? And you know, I have to live with myself the rest of my life, and I have to look in the mirror just like everybody else. And I didn't think I would like the face I saw if I didn't do what I've done.

TIBERII: McCullough's abrupt decision to retire gave Governor Cooper the chance to quickly appoint a Democrat to fill the seat until 2018. For now, the no-holds-barred power struggle between Republicans and Democrats in North Carolina shows no sign of ending. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Tiberii.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLYVERSAL SOULS' "SAD NILE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Tiberii first started posing questions to strangers after dinner at La Cantina Italiana, in Massachusetts, when he was two-years-old. Jeff grew up in Wayland, Ma., an avid fan of the Boston Celtics, and took summer vacations to Acadia National Park (ME) with his family. He graduated from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University with a degree in Broadcast Journalism, and moved to North Carolina in 2006. His experience with NPR member stations WAER (Syracuse), WFDD (Winston-Salem) and now WUNC, dates back 15 years.