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News-Record - "Doug Clark: Court Race Defies Superficial Portrayal"

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News-Record - "Doug Clark: Court Race Defies Superficial Portrayal"

Voters might hear that the political tilt of North Carolina's highest court rests on one election this year, but they should stop and listen closer.

Superficially, the race between Supreme Court Justice Bob Edmunds from Greensboro and Wake Forest University law professor Suzanne Reynolds looks pivotal.

He's a Republican; she's a Democrat. The court consists of four Republicans -- all men -- and three Democrats -- all women. Edmunds vs. Reynolds is the only Supreme Court contest on the ballot this year; if Reynolds wins and displaces Edmunds, the balance will shift from Republican-male to Democrat-female.

But appearances are deceiving. In terms of judicial outcomes, there isn't a 4-3 split on the court.

A review of the court's decisions for the last six months shows just one 4-3 ruling, and it didn't break along partisan or gender lines. A December decision written by Patricia Timmons-Goodson was joined by Edmunds, Mark Martin and Robin Hudson. Sarah Parker, Ed Brady and Paul Newby dissented, but only in part.

Most rulings are unanimous, making it very hard to detect divisions.

"We're all attuned to the U.S. Supreme Court's massively splintered decisions," Edmunds said Monday. Despite different political affiliations, the North Carolina justices "put it aside when we walk in the door."

Edmunds labels himself a "middle-of-the-road" jurist who decides cases on their merits and according to the rule of law, without applying political ideology.

But he admits to a mistake when speaking earlier this month at a Republican event in Watauga County.

"I'm the one person standing between you and one-party government in North Carolina," he said, according to the Boone Mountain Times.

Although judicial elections are nominally nonpartisan, he said every Republican incumbent at the appellate level is being challenged by a Democrat. "We're finding it very difficult to be bipartisan and nonpartisan when we're being challenged in a partisan way."

"I sort of regret having said that," Edmunds told me Monday. "It injected something that didn't need to be in a nonpartisan race."

For her part, Reynolds disavows partisanship. Her campaign Web site makes no mention of her party affiliation. That's a key point for her, noting in a statement that she avoided running in the past when campaigns required raising money and were "heavily partisan."

"With the advent of public financing and nonpartisan races, the process became, for me, more compatible with the principles of fairness and impartiality that should characterize the selection of judges."

She was more direct in a conversation Monday: "I certainly wasn't encouraged by party members to run. In fact, that would have insured that I didn't."

Reynolds is running because she's taught and written about the law for 26 years and has developed an expertise in appellate cases and family law, an increasing part of the court's docket. She would urge the court to write more opinions, which would help clarify the law, she said.

I couldn't draw criticism of Edmunds from her in our interview.

"She's a classy lady," Edmunds responded. "She has an excellent reputation."

He's making his case for re-election on 10 years' experience on the bench, plus 20 years' practice before that. For seven years, he was U.S. attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina.

Reynolds lived in Greensboro and practiced law with the Smith Moore firm here before starting her Wake Forest career in 1981. She and Edmunds have much in common besides the Triad connection: Both are 58, married with grown children and Episcopalians. Their campaign promises to be dignified and civil, giving voters a can't-lose choice.

Some Democrats and Republicans might portray this contest as a struggle for political control of the courts, but that would be superficial. Edmunds and Reynolds deserve better than that.

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