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Cooper Elevates Court Of Appeals Judge To Supreme Court

Jeff Tiberii

Mark Davis was appointed to the state Supreme Court on Monday afternoon, filling the void left by Cheri Beasley who was elevated to chief justice last month. She occupied the vacancy of Mark Martin, who retired abruptly to be dean at Regent Law School in Virginia.

Davis will begin serving next month at least through 2020, and says he will campaign for a full term.

Davis will "continue to serve the people of North Carolina with great distinction, and I appreciate his willingness to take on this crucial role," Cooper said while presenting Davis at an Executive Mansion news conference.

Both Davis and Beasley are Democrats and Martin is a Republican. That means six of the seven judges on the state’s high court are now Democrats. However, the game of judicial dominoes is not quite complete.

By virtue of Davis leaving the North Carolina Court of Appeals – where he has served for the past six years – Cooper will get to appoint his replacement.

Another vacancy looms with the upcoming retirement of Judge Robert Hunter, a Republican, who is required by state law to retire upon his 72nd birthday. If Cooper fills both vacancies with a Democrat, the state’s second highest court would shift from an 8-7 Republican advantage, to an 8-7 Democratic advantage next month.

Davis' appointment emphasizes the recent dramatic change in the partisan composition of the Supreme Court, which has ruled this decade in politically charged decisions involving redistricting and Republican laws that eroded Cooper's powers. In some states, judicial races are nonpartisan. North Carolina candidates for nearly all judicial offices now run in partisan races, identified by political party.

Registered Republicans held a majority on North Carolina's high court for nearly 20 years before Democrats took a 4-3 seat advantage with the November 2016 election. Democrats picked up another seat last November, leaving Martin and Associate Justice Paul Newby as the only Republicans.

While Cooper had no obligation to keep two Republicans on the court, GOP Senate leader Phil Berger still criticized the governor for picking another Democrat. Berger said in a release that Cooper's previous calls for a nonpartisan judiciary and balanced state government were just "empty rhetoric. Gov. Cooper is the hyper-partisan he has long condemned." Cooper's office didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Three of the court's seven seats will now be on the November 2020 statewide ballot because of Cooper's two appointments. The winners will be elected to eight-year terms. The seat belonging to Newby already was up for re-election next year. Newby already has announced he will run instead for chief justice, as has Beasley.

Newby publicly criticized Cooper for elevating Beasley to chief justice, saying the governor placed "raw partisan politics over a non-partisan judiciary" because he argued tradition directed the position should have gone to him as the longest-serving associate justice. Cooper said Beasley, the first African-American woman leading the state courts, was the right person at the right time.

Davis, a North Carolina native and former state government attorney, was appointed to the Court of Appeals in December 2012 during the last days of the administration of Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, for whom Davis served as general counsel.

"This is truly the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for me, and I feel like I've been preparing for this for my entire professional career," Davis said during the news conference. He added that it's the court's job to ensure "every case is decided fairly and impartially" on the facts of the case and the law, "and nothing else."

In a brief interview, Davis confirmed that he believes he is the first Jewish jurist on the North Carolina Supreme Court — a distinction of which he's proud. He called it an honor for the state's Jewish community.

Davis was chosen from at least 10 candidates who were interviewed by the governor. Those considered included Court of Appeals Judge Lucy Inman, current and former state lawmakers, including Rep. Marcia Morey and former Rep. Rick Glazier, as well as attorneys in private practice, including Hampton Dellinger.

Jeff Tiberii is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Jeff joined WUNC in 2011. During his 20 years in public radio, he was Morning Edition Host at WFDD and WUNC’s Greensboro Bureau Chief and later, the Capitol Bureau Chief. Jeff has covered state and federal politics, produced the radio documentary “Right Turn,” launched a podcast, and was named North Carolina Radio Reporter of the Year four times.
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