The legislature on Tuesday sent a bill to shrink the size of the state Court of Appeals to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk for signing, but comments from Cooper’s administration raise serious questions about whether he will sign the bill.
House Bill 239 would reduce the court from 15 judges to 12. Cooper’s spokesperson said in a release: “The Republican effort to reduce the number of judges on the Court of Appeals should be called out for exactly what it is: their latest power-grab, aimed at exerting partisan influence over the judicial branch and laying the groundwork for future court-packing.”
Under the bill, the seats of the next three judges to leave the bench, apart from those who do not seek re-election, would not be filled with a new judge. Over time this would bring the court to 12 members, as it was before the court was last expanded in 2000.
The bill, passed in party-line votes in both the House and Senate, would also send some cases directly to the state Supreme Court, such as those involving the termination of parental rights.
Democrats opposing the bill said that the intent of the bill was to retain a Republican majority because Cooper would not be able to replace judges who reach the mandatory retirement age.
In a statement issued after the bill was given final approval in the House, Rep. Justin Burr (R-Stanly) said, “Judicial branch statistics indicate that over the last decade, the caseload before the North Carolina Court of Appeals has decreased. The number of filings, trials and dispositions they consider have reached levels similar to those prior to the court being packed for political purposes in 2000.
“House Bill 239 also allows the Court of Appeals to share its caseload with the state Supreme Court. As the same judicial branch reports and statistics indicate, the Supreme Court does not have a significant workload and this reform seeks to equalize the burden on both.”
The Court of Appeals was originally formed in 1967 as a six-member court but was increased to nine members in 1969 and was then increased again to 12 members in 1977 and remained that way for 23 years, until it was again increased to its current size of 15 in 2000. Democrats dominate NC government throughout that span.
The court usually meets in panels of three judges, which is why the court has always been increased, or now possibly decreased, by factors of three seats.
If Cooper does veto the legislation, the House and Senate would have the option of taking up another override vote, as they did when Cooper vetoed legislation that will return partisan labels to all Superior and District Court elections.
With Republicans still holding super-majorities in both chambers, an override vote on the bill would likely be successful.