The North Carolina Supreme Court’s Democratic majority handed down a win for democracy Friday when it struck down maps gerrymandered by Republicans.
But Chief Justice Paul Newby, joined by his fellow Republican justices, handed down what amounted to a judicial tantrum.
Newby “respectfully” dissented to the ruling by repeating an argument circulated widely by Republicans lately: that the court’s Democratic justices are guided by politics, not jurisprudence.
“A majority of this Court, however, tosses judicial restraint aside, seizing the opportunity to advance its agenda,” Newby wrote in his dissent. Newby also accused the court’s majority of “seeking to hide its partisan bias.”
The legal basis for Newby’s dissent is ludicrous in itself. Newby argues that since electoral maps are drawn by members of the General Assembly, who are chosen by voters, any judicial intervention in the redistricting process usurps the will of the people. That’s a head-scratching argument when the primary issue is that the maps drawn by Republicans all but guarantee that the legislature does not, in fact, represent the will of the people.
But Newby didn’t just dispute the merits of the majority ruling, as a judge appropriately does in a dissenting opinion. He went a step further by questioning the merits of his colleagues and the court itself. It was behavior unbecoming of a justice, let alone the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
North Carolina Republicans, of course, will be North Carolina Republicans. As with previous rulings that didn’t go their way, they lambasted the court’s Democratic majority Friday, christening the justices “bought and paid for” partisan hacks and even suggesting they ought to be impeached.
That’s unfortunate, and it should be out of bounds for lawmakers of either party. But for that narrative to be repeated by a chief justice, in his written dissent, is an altogether different and troubling development. It’s hard to imagine US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts accusing his colleagues of bias or calling their ethics into question. Despite the many issues on which they vehemently disagree, justices on the US Supreme Court have generally strived to maintain a minimum level of respect for one another, at least in the public eye.
It’s not the first time that Newby has publicly maligned his colleagues. In 2019, Newby, who at the time was the lone Republican on the court, criticized his fellow justices in a campaign speechcalling them “AOCs” and accusing them of “judicial activism.”
But perhaps that’s just what you get when you elect justices to the state’s highest court through partisan elections, and allow campaigns to be funded by private dollars rather than by public financing. It is, after all, nearly impossible to keep politics out of a court that isn’t designed to be apolitical. The result was apparent Friday: a state Supreme Court soiled by the same toxic partisanship that poisons other branches of government, eroding public trust in the court and every justice who sits on it.
It is, in many ways, emblematic of another political dispute that has paralleled North Carolina’s redistricting battle: a fight over the legitimacy of the state Supreme Court itself. In recent months, the high court has been weighed down by accusations of partisanship, threats of impeachment and demands for recusal — not just in the redistricting case, but in others as well. We fear that’s led North Carolinians to be skeptical of the courts and their ability to decide cases fairly. With public confidence in our institutions dwindling, a chief justice should focus on restoring that trust, not work to accelerate its decline.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case here. Newby sounded a lot more like a Trump-era politician than a Supreme Court justice. And in doing so, he revealed that it’s he who’s seeing things through a partisan, political lens. It is the very thing that Republicans have accused the court’s Democratic justices of all along.