The N.C. Court of Appeals plans to increase transparency related to its work next week. In a policy change that takes effect Monday, the court will share more information about its responses to petitions.
Starting Aug. 1, the court will “disclose, in real-time, whether a petition was decided by a unanimous or majority vote,” according to a news release. Orders linked to petitions will indicate whether Appeals Court panels voted 3-0 or 2-1 when making a decision.
On the same date, the Appeals Court will start identifying judges who ruled on petitions. The court will release that information with a 90-day delay.
“Historically, the Court has not disclosed the membership of a panel as a measure to prevent judge shopping,” according to the news release. “Waiting 90 days to reveal panel membership allows the Court to maintain this policy goal, as the current panel will continue to be anonymous and the composition of future panels will remain difficult to predict.”
Petitions ask the Appeals Court to take some form of action. That could include forcing a trial court to act or blocking a trial court’s ruling during an appeal. A petition also might ask the Appeals Court to hear a case.
The court started electronically recording judges’ petition votes on March 10. When the new policy takes effect, people will be able to see which judges took part in petition decisions from that date through May 3. “As other petitions reach the 90-day mark, the judges and their votes will be disclosed,” according to the release.
The Court of Appeals has 15 members. Ten are Republicans. Five are Democrats. Judges regularly sit in three-member panels. Court rules require frequent changes in panels so that each judge has an opportunity to sit with every other judge during the regular course of business.
With rare exceptions, past Appeals Court decisions on petitions have featured no information about the judges involved, including whether their votes were split.
“Since its founding, the Court has not disclosed the judges who rule on the hundreds of petitions the Court receives each year,” said Chief Judge Donna Stroud in the release. “The Court has been discussing potential changes to this practice for some time, and we have been working on our internal procedures and configuring our electronic docketing system to make these new disclosures possible. We’re glad to take this step to give the public additional information regarding petitions.”
At least twice in the past eight months, information about three-judge Appeals Court panels has reached the public.
Last December, Carolina Journal’s “The Woodshed” reported that Democratic Judge Darren Jackson and a fellow Democrat outvoted a Republican colleague to block candidate filing for North Carolina’s 2022 elections. After that revelation in CJ, the Appeals Court announced that it had changed the composition of its petition panel.
In April, the Appeals Court itself revealed that judges had split 2-1 in issuing an order linked to felon voting. Judges John Arrowood and Allegra Collins, both Democrats, agreed to block a lower court ruling permitting felon voting, but only for elections scheduled May 17 and July 26. The two judges agreed that the State Board of Elections could begin taking steps after July 26 to register felons to vote if those felons had completed active prison time.
Judge Jefferson Griffin, a Republican, disagreed with Arrowood and Collins. He would have continued to block felon voting until a legal dispute over the issue had been resolved.
Griffin wrote a rare dissent from an Appeals Court order. Griffin warned of the “high risk of irreparable harm” if felons registered to vote, then lost their right to vote because of a future court ruling.
Mirroring the Appeals Court’s longstanding policy, the state Supreme Court also issues most of its orders with little transparency. Those orders usually offer no indication of whether votes are split or unanimous.
Thursday offered a rare exception. When the court’s four Democrats agreed to hear oral arguments in October in connection with an election redistricting dispute, the three Republican justices dissented. Justice Tamara Barringer wrote a 12-page dissent from an order that otherwise took up six pages.