While pundits and voters may focus the bulk of their attention on marquee congressional races this Election Day, an equally important but less trumpeted electoral contest also appears on North Carolinians’ ballots: a three-way race to either remain or become an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina.
Unlike the nine United States Supreme Court justices, who ascended to that Court by scoring a presidential nomination and surviving Senate confirmation, the seven men and women who comprise North Carolina’s highest court secured their judicial posts via popular, state-wide election. However, despite the unusual privilege that North Carolina voters enjoy when it comes to selecting the jurists who serve on their State’s highest court, some may be surprised to learn exactly what kinds of cases that Court hears.
Types of Cases Heard
Those cases can be broadly divided into two categories: (1) cases that the Court must hear; and (2) those that the Court may, in its discretion, elect to hear. Each of these two categories is addressed in turn below.
Cases falling into the “must hear” category currently include the following: (1) appeals from decisions of the superior court in which a criminal defendant has been convicted of first-degree murder and the judgment imposed includes a sentence of death; (2) final judgments and otherwise appealable orders rendered by the North Carolina Business Court; (3) appeals from all trial court decisions regarding class action certification; (4) appeals from final orders or decisions of the Utilities Commission in general rate cases; and (5) any decision issued by a three-judge panel of the North Carolina Court of Appeals in which there is a dissent. Beginning January 1, 2019, appeals from district court orders that terminate parental rights or deny a petition or motion to terminate parental rights will be added to this list, although there is some movement to rescind this category.
Cases falling into the “may hear” category include appeals from unanimous decisions rendered by a three-judge panel of the North Carolina Court of Appeals, or cases decided by the Court of Appeals on initial en banc review (that is, heard by the full Court of Appeals, as opposed to a panel of three judges), in which the subject matter of the appeal has significant public interest, the cause involves legal principles of major significance to the jurisprudence of the State, or the decision of the Court of Appeals appears likely to be in conflict with a decision of the Supreme Court. Other cases falling into this category include appeals from certain trial court or administrative agency decisions in which the subject matter of the appeal has significant public interest, the cause involves legal principles of major significance to the jurisprudence of the State, delay in final adjudication would likely result from the Court’s failure to certify the case for direct appeal and thereby cause substantial harm, or the subject matter of the appeal is critical to overseeing the jurisdiction and integrity of the court system. A similarly limited subset of trial court and administrative agency decisions may be heard by the Supreme Court by direct appeal, skipping the Court of Appeals, when the workload of the State’s two appellate courts is such that the expeditious administration of justice requires immediate and direct appeal to Supreme Court.
Cases that are the Exception
Finally, toeing the line between “must hear” and “may hear” are decisions rendered by a unanimous, three-judge panel of the North Carolina Court of Appeals, or decided by the Court of Appeals on initial en banc review, which directly involve a substantial constitutional question arising under either the federal or state constitutions. These cases defy easy yes/no categorization because, although they technically give rise to a statutory appeal of right, the Supreme Court itself decides what amounts to a substantial constitutional question. As a result, a litigant may believe his case involves a substantial constitutional question, thus making his appeal a much coveted “must hear” case, but the Court may disagree with the litigant’s assessment of the substantiality of the constitutional question presented. If so, the Court may demote the appeal to “may hear” status.
For “must hear” cases, “may hear cases,” and all cases in between, the appellate litigators at Blanco Tackabery stand ready to assist you in navigating the complex arena of North Carolina Supreme Court appeals.
About the Author: Chad Archer
Chad focuses his practice on civil litigation.