Wednesday, February 03, 2010

N.C. Supreme Court arguments as spectator sport

It's not often that folks look forward to oral arguments before the N.C. Supreme Court as something of a spectator sport. Usually they're pretty dry affairs -- often with a courtroom full of lawyers and a carefully orchestrated performance before the justices using rules that allot each side a certain amount of time for argument and counter argument.

But the Feb. 16 session of the court will be interesting from any number of viewpoints. That's the day the seven-member court, headed by Chief Justice Sarah Parker of Charlotte, hears arguments whether Superior Court Judge Ripley Rand was correct in ruling that the state cannot continue to confine two prison inmates whose time behind bars, their lawyers argue, has expired. Potentially dozens more felons, including murderers and rapists, could also be released if the high court upholds Rand and, by extension, a three-judge panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals that ruled in 2008 in an inmate's favor and said prison officials have to recalculate time served and determine if the inmate should now be released.

At issue are legislative amendments to the old Fair Sentencing Act going back three decades and the Department of Correction's interpretation of when and how time-off credits should be applied.

More interesting to many is the question how the Supreme Court will look at the Court of Appeals decision, which was delivered by three Republican judges, all of them regarded as conservative jurists but who ruled in the inmate's favor. The judges were then-Judge Doug McCullough (unseated in the last election), Judge Ann Marie Calabria and Judge John Tyson, who now serves as an Emergency Recall Judge.

The state appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, and the court agreed to hear the arguments. It did so -- and then in a curious one-page filing, the court stated only that its decision to review the lower court decision had been "improvidently allowed." There are all kinds of ways to interpret that, but the simplest fact is that the Supremes did not choose to interfere with the lower appellate court ruling. It's especially interesting in that the N.C. Supreme Court is fairly conservative, too. While its judges no longer run on partisan party platforms, it's well-known that four of the judges are Republicans and three, including Parker, are Democrats.

It's also interesting because of a set of e-mails the News & Observer published Tuesday showing that the Perdue administration was all set to release a number of inmates after Perdue made a public statement that the courts were forcing the state to release the inmates. I'd guess she, and her handlers, would like to have that one back.

So spectators are looking forward to the second round of arguments before the Supreme Court on essentially the same issue, with Democratic Gov. Bev. Perdue's administration trying to persuade Republicans, and Democrats, too, to keep the inmates behind bars. Wonder if there will be any improvident allowing this time around?


Anonymous said...

I'm glad you did this article because you are correct that it is very infrequent that members of the public observe oral arguments in appellate courts, unless the forum is the US Supreme Court. While the arguments and questions from the Judges will undoubtedly be interesting, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to "read the tea leaves" and predict how they will rule. This will certainly be one to watch.

Afiz said...

Thanks for the great post
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