- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 11, 2017

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The number of state Court of Appeals judges would drop from 15 to 12 under a Republican bill that North Carolina lawmakers passed Tuesday and sent to the governor.

The Republican-backed measure would phase out the three judgeships as vacancies arise through retirements or resignations, and it would allow more matters be appealed directly to the state Supreme Court.

Critics contend the measure is meant to keep Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper from filling court vacancies, such as one created by an expected retirement in May.

“We all know that this is being done for partisan reasons,” said Rep. Darren Jackson of Wake County, the House’s Democratic leader.

But Republican supporters argue that the measure is warranted because of data indicating that the workload of the Court of Appeals has fallen in recent years.

“It’s clear to me, and I hope it is clear to you as well, that the reduction of the Court of Appeals is good policy and an effective use of the taxpayers’ money,” said Republican Rep. Justin Burr of Stanly County, one of the bill’s sponsors.

The appeals judges are elected to serve eight-year terms, but they must retire at age 72. Court of Appeals Judge Doug McCullough is a registered Republican who’s set to retire in May. Without the new measure Cooper would have been able to choose his replacement.

Should Cooper veto the bill, there are enough Republicans in each chamber to override him.

Democratic Rep. Joe John of Wake County, a former state appeals court judge, said during floor debate that the legislation makes him “truly depressed.”

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