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Judge Restores Judicial Primaries in North Carolina

A federal judge Wednesday ordered North Carolina election officials to reinstate primary elections for judicial candidates seeking statewide office this year.

(CN) - A federal judge Wednesday ordered North Carolina election officials to reinstate primary elections for judicial candidates seeking statewide office this year.

The order issued by U.S. District Catherine Eagles granted a request by state Democratic Party officials who sued the the leaders of North Carolina's GOP-controlled legislature for canceling primary elections for all judicial races in 2018.

The law covered all district courts, superior courts and appellate courts’ judiciary candidates from the district courts. There are 150 judicial elections in 2018.

The legislature enacted the law for 2018 claiming that redistricting could cause confusion to the electoral process. The injunction reinstates the primaries to statewide seats, but not for district and superior courts.

In their complaint and during a hearing last week, the Democrats argued the Republican-led General Assembly violated the party's free speech and equal protection rights.

“In no area is a political party’s associational right more important than in the selection of its nominee for election through a primary. The process of selecting a political party’s nominee often determines a party’s positions on significant public policy issues and it is a party’s nominee who becomes the party’s ambassador to the general electorate in winning the public over to the party’s views,” said the lawsuit brought by the North Carolina Democratic Party and seven county Democratic party organizations.

Without primaries, they said, the November ballots could have any number of names on them, and that would make it more difficult for the Democrat's best or chosen candidate to garner a solid majority.

Eagles agreed.

“A cluttered ballot threatens the freedom of political parties to join together to further common beliefs,” she wrote. “Without a primary or some other mechanism to narrow the field of candidates on the general election partisan ballot, the ability of political parties like the plaintiffs to provide support for their chosen candidate and to leverage that support in other races is restricted and the possibility of confusion and deception arises.”

Predictably, North Carolina's Democratic Party chairman was pleased by the ruling.

“We applaud the court for stopping Republicans’ attempts to rig our judicial elections,” Wayne Goodwin said in a written statement. “Restoring people’s right to vote in primaries for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals is an important victory, but we believe that same right should have been extended to our lower courts as well."

But Republicans were less pleased, dismissing the ruling by Eagles, who was nominated to the federal bench by former President Barack Obama, as strictly partisan.

“We are disappointed that this Obama-appointed federal judge is once again injecting chaos and confusion into North Carolina elections at the eleventh hour – this time at the behest of the Democratic Party and to the detriment of voters,” said Rep. David Lewis and Sen. Ralph Hise in a joint statement.

“This law was passed in October, and candidates interested in running for judicial office understood they still had several months to organize campaigns and make a final decision – but because of the court’s interference, they now have less than two weeks to decide. This is a highly partisan ruling by a Democratic judge, and we are evaluating our legal options,” they said.

The filing period for judicial candidates opens on Feb. 12 and closes on Feb. 28.

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