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

Article excerpt


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. …