Republicans with a firm grip on the North Carolina legislature — and, until January, the governor’s seat — enacted a conservative agenda in recent years, only to have a steady stream of laws affecting voting and legislative power rejected by the courts. Now lawmakers have seized on a solution: change the makeup of the courts. Judges in state courts as of this year must identify their party affiliation on ballots, making North Carolina the first state in nearly a century to adopt partisan court elections. The General Assembly in Raleigh reduced the size of the state Court of Appeals, depriving Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, of naming replacements for retiring Republicans. And this month, lawmakers drew new boundaries for judicial districts statewide, which critics say are meant to increase the number of Republican judges on district and superior courts and would force many African-Americans on the bench into runoffs against other incumbents.
“Instead of changing the way they write their laws, they want to change the judges,” Mr. Cooper said as he sat in a 19th-century, high-ceiling library at the Executive Mansion, which he has occupied uneasily since succeeding Pat McCrory, a Republican. The legislature has overridden nearly a dozen of his vetoes. The latest was on Monday, when lawmakers sustained a bill to eliminate judicial primary elections, which Mr. Cooper called part of an effort to “rig the system.”
Republicans say their goal is to correct yearslong imbalances from shifts in population, ignored while Democrats held power, and to give voters more information about little-known judges in down-ballot races. “This is about making good policy,” Representative Justin Burr, who unveiled the proposed new judicial maps in a series of Twitter messages one Sunday in June, has said.
North Carolina’s evolution comes in the context of longstanding but increasing politicization of federal courts. Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, blocked President Barack Obama’s appointment of Merrick B. Garland to the Supreme Court for 10 months until Mr. Obama’s term expired. In the end, President Trump appointed Neil M. Gorsuch to the court instead. On Monday, appearing at the White House with Mr. Trump, Mr. McConnell said he favors ending the tradition of giving senators a veto — known as a “blue slip” — over judges for appellate courts in their home states.