Allen leads in GOP NC Supreme Court seat race. Stroud holds on in appeals bench contest.

·4 min read

Trey Allen appears headed to a victory over April Wood for the Republican primary for a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Officials had not completely finished counting the votes as of 10:30 p.m. on Election Day on Tuesday, but most of the votes were in by then. Allen led Wood by just under 20 percentage points.

There were also two N.C. Court of Appeals primary elections on the ballot this year, also both on the GOP side.

In one of those races, the incumbent Chief Judge Donna Stroud is facing a well-funded challenger, Beth Freshwater Smith, who has support from many Republican legislators and other officials. However, that support may not have been enough to knock off Stroud, who was leading Freshwater Smith by a solid margin late Tuesday evening.

The News & Observer previously reported that GOP leaders appear to want Stroud replaced. One of Freshwater Smith’s biggest and earliest backers is Supreme Court Justice Phil Berger Jr., whose father is the N.C. Senate leader. Several of her biggest donors are Republican legislators. And an ad campaign backing Freshwater Smith, indirectly funded by a Republican legislative group, is being led by the elder Berger’s former chief of staff.

At least some of the intra-party anger directed at Stroud, The N&O reported, may stem from the court’s decision under her leadership to hire someone for a high-level staff job at the court who used to be a registered Democrat, passing up at least one politically connected Republican lawyer who had applied for the job.

In the other race, Michael Stading and Charlton Allen are competing for the chance to run against Democratic incumbent Justice Darren Jackson in November. Jackson, who was formerly the top Democratic leader in the N.C. House of Representatives, was appointed to an open seat on the court by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper in 2020.

Stading appeared headed to a clear victory in that primary.

For GOP, a chance to flip the court

For the Supreme Court seat, the winner of Tuesday’s GOP primary will take on incumbent Justice Sam Ervin IV, a Democrat and the grandson of the famous Watergate-era U.S. senator from Morganton of the same name, during this November’s general election.

The November election will offer voters the chance to decide the partisan balance of the state’s highest court. Democrats currently hold a 4-3 majority. But two of the Democrat-held seats are up for election this year, meaning that Republicans can take back the majority on the court by flipping just one of the two seats.

The other seat up for grabs on the Supreme Court did not have a primary, since only one candidate from each party has filed to run: Lucy Inman, a Democrat, and Richard Dietz, a Republican. Both currently serve on the N.C. Court of Appeals. The incumbent justice, Robin Hudson, is not seeking re-election re-election. Even if she had won, she would have soon been forced to quit, due to the court’s mandatory retirement age.

Supreme Court candidates

The GOP primary to decide Ervin’s opponent for Supreme Court in November offered Republican voters two main choices: Wood and Allen. Both have been attorneys for over 20 years but have very different resumes.

Wood has been a judge for almost all of her career, mainly at the trial court level, but since last year on the N.C. Court of Appeals. She also spent several years in private practice.

Allen has no judicial experience but is close to Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby, a Republican who won that seat in 2020. He has worked for the government most of his career, in various roles but currently as general counsel of the state courts system. Like Wood, he also spent several years in private practice.

Newby didn’t formally endorse Allen — sitting judges aren’t allowed to make endorsements unless they’re also running for office, and Newby isn’t — but he came about as close as is allowed, making it clear he was a strong supporter of Allen’s campaign. Early on in the primary Newby tweeted a photo of the two them standing together inside the Supreme Court courtroom, with a praise-filled message that concluded: “I would be honored to serve with him.”

Wood, meanwhile, was endorsed by two former GOP Supreme Court justices: Barbara Jackson and ex-chief justice Mark Martin, both of whom left the court in 2019. She highlighted the fact that she was the only candidate in the race who had any prior experience on the bench — particularly at the trial level — in a written statement for the state’s official judicial voter guide.

“Experienced trial court judges are a crucial asset missing from the Supreme Court,” Wood said. “My experience, both as a trial court judge and as a judge on the Court of Appeals uniquely qualifies me to hold a seat on the Supreme Court.”

A longshot third candidate in the primary, Victoria Prince, did not appear to campaign very much and has only been a lawyer since 2019. She received less than 9% in early voting.

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