Why you should not judge a book by its cover: looking beyond party affiliations to discern patterns in judicial decisionmaking in the North Carolina Supreme Court: an analysis of voting trends in criminal and tort cases from 1995-2002.

AuthorRyan, Rachel

    The people of North Carolina have the power to elect the justices who sit on the state's Supreme Court. (1) Between 1995 and 2002, the registered voters of the state used this power to transform the court from one dominated by Democrats to one controlled by Republicans. (2) From 1995 to 1998, the court was composed of five Democrats and two Republicans. (3) The election of Republicans Mark Martin and George L. Wainwright, Jr. in 1999, both taking seats formerly held by Democrats, marked the beginning of the change. (4) In 2000, Republicans I. Beverly Lake, Jr. and Robert H. Edmunds, Jr. won their races, further shifting the balance of the court, and leaving only two Democrats still holding seats. (5) The 2003 election ushered in another Republican justice--Edward Thomas Brady--and created a court comprised of six Republicans and one Democrat. (6)

    This high court study of the North Carolina Supreme Court was conducted in order to determine what impact, if any, this dramatic shift in the court's political composition had on its rulings in both criminal and tort cases. Did the court's voting pattern fluctuate as a result of the changes in the number of Democratic or Republican justices? And if so, would it be possible to judge a court simply based on the party affiliations of its members? This study addresses these questions. In order to gain insight into the effect recent changes have had on the court, one must go beyond the partisan labels of the justices and examine each justice's voting record and individual writings to discern the true nature of each one's decision-making process. (7) This study was designed to explore these issues and provide a comprehensive analysis of the North Carolina Supreme Court.

    Part II describes the methodology used to conduct this study. It will also expand on what is meant by "conservative" and "liberal" in the judicial sense, labels that will be used to provide a general idea of each justice's judicial approach. Part III briefly discusses the court's organizational structure and the justices who were included in the study. Parts IV and V examine and analyze each justice's voting record along with his or her judicial values and philosophies. Part VI assesses the court as a whole and concludes that during the eight-year period considered, the court remained conservative when voting on criminal cases, but became more liberal in its treatment of tort cases.


    The methodological process of this study involved analyzing both criminal and tort cases decided by the North Carolina Supreme Court that resulted in divided opinions. (8) Criminal cases were examined separately from tort cases in order to determine whether a particular justice's voting tendency would remain consistent regardless of the subject matter. Only cases filed between 1995 and 2002 were included in this study. By utilizing a two-part analysis, a broad and in-depth understanding of each justice's decision-making process emerged.

    The first part of the analysis was quantitative in nature, providing a general picture of each justice's conservative or liberal leanings. This study reviewed forty-two criminal cases; in each case a justice's vote was labeled either pro-defendant or pro-prosecution. A vote was classified as "pro-defendant" if it operated to protect the rights of the accused: conversely, a justice's vote was classified as "pro-prosecution" if it favored an outcome the state desired or advocated.

    This study also analyzed thirty tort cases; for each case, a justice's vote was labeled as either pro-individual or pro-tortfeasor. A vote was labeled "pro-individual" if the reasoning used to support the vote protected the rights of an allegedly injured party. If the vote protected the alleged tortfeasor, to the detriment of the allegedly injured party, it was deemed to be a "pro-tortfeasor" vote.

    Graphing the pro-defendant and pro-individual voting percentages demonstrated the voting tendencies of each justice, and the court as a whole. (9) These voting percentages provide a general sense of whether a particular justice employs a conservative or liberal approach when deciding cases. In the context of this study, the term "conservative" characterizes one who favors the government over the individual in criminal cases or the tortfeasor over the injured party in civil cases. When a claim involves a violation of an individual's civil rights or liberties, an equal protection violation, or the rights of a criminal defendant, a conservative will tend to vote in favor of the government which, in a criminal case, is a vote in favor of the prosecution. (10) A conservative tends to limit the extent to which an individual's rights and liberties are protected. (11) In contrast, the term "liberal" denotes one who, in criminal cases, advocates individual civil rights and liberties, equal protection, and the rights of the accused; and in civil cases the rights of the injured party. (12) Liberals prefer to extend the scope of protection afforded such rights and liberties. (13) For the purposes of this study, under these definitions of conservative and liberal, a justice with both high pro-defendant and high pro-individual percentages is deemed "liberal" while a justice with low pro-defendant and pro-individual percentages is deemed "conservative."

    The second, qualitative, part of the analysis examined each justice's majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions to discern the justice's legal methodology, and each justice's concurring and dissenting opinions to discern the views he or she wanted to publicly record. Those written opinions that most clearly represented the justice's judicial philosophy or approach will be discussed to offer specific insight into each justice's individual decision-making process.


    The North Carolina Supreme Court consists of seven members--one chief justice and six associate justices. (14) The General Assembly may increase the number of associate justices up to eight, if it so chooses. (15) All the justices on the court, including the chief justice, are elected by the registered voters of the state to serve eight-year terms. (16) In order to retain his or her seat, the justice must run for re-election. (17) If a justice on the court vacates his or her seat before his or her term is completed, the governor has the authority to appoint a replacement. (18)

    The justices currently sitting on the Supreme Court of North Carolina are: Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake, Jr., Justice Robert H. Edmunds, Jr., Justice Mark Martin, Justice Sarah Parker, Justice Robert F. Orr, Justice George L. Wainwright, Jr., and Justice Edward Thomas Brady. (19) Chief Justice Lake won a close election in 2000, defeating then-Chief Justice Henry Frye to become chief justice in January of 2001. (20) Justice Parker joined the court in 1993 and has the longest tenure of all the current members. (21) Elected to the court in 1994, (22) Justice Robert Orr began his term in 1995--the same year Chief Justice Lake was re-seated on the court as an associate justice. (23) Justices Martin and Wainwright became members in 1999, (24) Justice Edmunds in 2001, (25) and Justice Brady in 2003. (26) The voting tendencies of these justices will be explored in greater detail below.

    There are four additional justices included in this study because they sat on the court for a significant period of time from 1995 to 2002. These justices are: Chief Justice Burley B. Mitchell, Jr., Justice Willis P. Whichard, Chief Justice Henry Frye, and Justice John Webb. Justice Mitchell served as an associate justice from 1982 to 1994 and chief justice from 1995 to 1999. (27) Justice Whichard was a member of the court from 1986 to 1998. (28) Justice Frye served as an associate justice from 1983 to 1999 and as the chief justice from 1999 to 2000. (29) Justice Webb began his term in 1986 and retired in 1998. (30)


    1. Chief Justice Henry Frye

      Chief Justice Henry Frye, the longest-serving member of the North Carolina Supreme Court, was the tribunal's first African American chief justice. (31) In 2000, he ran for re-election as a Democrat to retain his judgeship but lost to Justice I. Beverly Lake, Jr. (32)

      Chief Justice Frye's voting record demonstrates he was the most liberal justice on the court between 1995 and 2000. (33) Although his fifty-six percent pro-defendant voting might be considered moderate in other state courts, (34) he was liberal in comparison to the other members of the North Carolina Supreme Court. (35) In criminal cases, only Chief Justice Frye and Justice Webb had pro-defendant voting percentages over fifty percent. (36)

      In terms of criminal cases, Chief Justice Frye voted consistently as one of the court's most pro-defendant justices. (37) It is interesting to note that his pro-defendant voting percentage decreased by twenty-three percent in the two years prior to his 2000 election, while the pro-defendant voting percentages of the other members either increased or stayed the same. (38) Even with the dip in his pro-defendant voting percentage, however, he remained one of the court's most vocal proponents of defendant rights.

      Chief Justice Frye's voting record in tort cases offers additional support for labeling him a liberal. His voting record was even more consistent in tort cases than it was in criminal cases. (39) Of the divided tort cases Chief Justice Frye participated in, he voted to protect the rights of the individual seventy-four percent of the time. (40) Only Justice Martin had a higher pro-individual voting percentage: the remaining justices had percentages of forty percent or below. (41)

      With such a comparatively conservative court, it is no surprise that Chief Justice Frye was the most frequent dissenter in both criminal and tort cases. Of the cases included in this study, he authored ten dissents in criminal...

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