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Still no resolution of major 2019 N.C. Supreme Court cases

The latest batch of opinions from the N.C. Supreme Court does nothing to resolve high-profile legal disputes addressed in my latest Daily Journal.

Each of those disputes — including cases related to the now-repealed Racial Justice Act, the N.C. attorney general’s hog farm “slush fund,” and an election dispute pitting Lt. Gov. Dan Forest against state employees’ political group — has been lingering in the state’s highest court since last year.

Fifteen of the Supreme Court’s 23 newly released opinions deal with cases argued in 2019. That boosts the overall percentage of cases resolved from last year to 71% (75 of 106 cases). That’s still far short of the 83 of 84 cases justices had resolved at this point in 2019 from the prior year’s calendar.

Though the court did not address the topics of my column, they did issue interesting rulings in other cases.

  • In a 6-1 ruling in State v. Mercer, the court affirmed an Appeals Court decision granting a defendant a new trial. He argued he should be able to use a “justification” defense to fight a charge of being a felon with illegal possession of a firearm. Dissenting Justice Michael Morgan argued that his colleagues set a “perilously low” threshold in allowing a defendant to use that defense.
  • In an unsigned unanimous opinion in Boles v. Town of Oak Island, the Supreme Court reversed the Appeals Court and ruled for the town in a dispute over assessment of  sewer district fees.
  • In City of Charlotte v. University Financial Properties LLC, a rare 3-3 deadlock on the Supreme Court allows an Appeals Court decision to stand with no precedential value. The Appeals Court had ruled in favor of the city in an eminent domain dispute involving construction of a downtown bridge tied to Charlotte’s light rail line.
  • A unanimous ruling in Rouse v. Forsyth Cty. Dept. Soc. Servcs. reversed the Appeals Court and decided that an administrative law judge can award back pay and attorneys’ fees to a local government worker who wins a wrongful-termination dispute.
  • A unanimous ruling in State v. Carey reversed the Appeals Court and determined that a “flash bang” grenade is a weapon of mass death and destruction.
  • In the only 4-3 split among the latest group of opinions, the court decided in State v. Reed that a law enforcement officer had violated a defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights by prolonging a traffic stop.
  • In a 5-2 ruling in State v. Simpkins, the Supreme Court decided that a judge had not followed proper procedure before allowing the case against an uncooperative defendant to proceed without a defense lawyer. Dissenting Justice Paul Newby argued that the majority opinion “undermines the trial court’s fundamental authority over the courtroom.”
  • In a 6-1 ruling in State v. Nobles, the Supreme Court agreed with the Appeals Court that a defendant had not offered sufficient proof that he was an Indian not subject to the jurisdiction of the N.C. court system. Dissenting Justice Anita Earls wanted that issue to be decided by a jury.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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