North Carolina Democrats’ road back to Supreme Court majority starts with next year’s race

Candidate filing closed this past Friday for the March 5 primaries in North Carolina, a perennial swing state that will host closely watched races up and down the ballot. Not to be overlooked, though, is a crucial contest for an eight-year term on the state Supreme Court.

Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Allison Riggs in September after Mike Morgan, a fellow Democrat, resigned ahead of launching a bid for governor. Had Morgan instead sought and won another term on the court, he would have faced mandatory retirement at the age of 72, in 2027, less than halfway through a second term. The new justice, who at 42 is the youngest woman ever to serve on the court, won’t face that same problem, but she doesn’t have a clear path to the general election.

Riggs instead faces an intraparty challenge from Superior Court Judge Lora Cubbage, who serves the Greensboro area. Cubbage ran statewide in 2020 for a seat on the Court of Appeals, but she lost to Republican Fred Gore 51-49 as Donald Trump was narrowly carrying the state. A new survey from Public Policy Polling shows that both candidates start off with little name recognition, with Riggs ahead 12-9.

The only Republican in the race is Court of Appeals Judge Jefferson Griffin, who won his post three years ago by unseating Democratic incumbent Chris Brook, also by a 51-49 margin.

Democrats need to hold this seat in November as part of a multi-cycle plan that represents their only realistic path toward rolling back the GOP’s iron grip on state politics. Last year, Republicans flipped two Supreme Court seats to turn what had been a 4-3 Democratic edge into a 5-2 GOP majority, and Democrats have little room for error if they’re to regain control this decade. To eventually take a 4-3 majority, Democrats would need to win four of the court’s next five races, a battery that includes Riggs’ election campaign next year, fellow Democratic Justice Anita Earls’ reelection bid in 2026, and contests for three Republican-held seats in 2028.

It’s also critical that Democrats prevail in next year’s race to succeed Cooper as governor so that they can stop Republican legislators from adding two seats to the court for a GOP governor to fill, a court-packing plan they’ve been contemplating for years. A Democratic governor could also fill any other vacancies that arise.

Correction: This piece incorrectly stated that Republican Chief Justice Paul Newby would be subject to mandatory retirement in 2027 at the age of 72. North Carolina recently raised the mandatory retirement age for judges to 76.

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