- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 30, 2020

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The outgoing leader of Democrats within the North Carolina House is joining the state Court of Appeals, the result of a vacancy by another appellate judge moving up to the state Supreme Court.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Wednesday that he’s appointed Rep. Darren Jackson of Wake County to the seat being vacated by Phil Berger Jr., who won a spot on the state’s highest court last month.

Jackson, a House member since 2009, won reelection to his House seat in November. But he decided not to run for minority leader, the post he’s held for the past four years and from where he pushed hard for Cooper’s first-term agenda. In stepping away as minority leader, Jackson cited disappointing election results for Democrats in the House, where the Republicans actually padded their majority by four additional seats. Jackson would have been a likely candidate for speaker had Democrats won the six seats necessary to earn a majority.

A private-practice lawyer in Zebulon, Jackson graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University law school. The 15-member Court of Appeals usually hears cases that challenge trial-court matters in panels of three judges.

“Darren Jackson has spent his legal career fighting for a more fair and just North Carolina,” Cooper said in a news release. “His decades of experience as a lawyer and elected public servant have prepared him for the bench, and I’m grateful for his willingness to continue serving our state with honor.”

Jackson, who also tendered his House resignation letter effective at midday Wednesday, can run for a full eight-year term in November 2022 if he seeks to remain on the court beyond the next two years. Wake County Democrats now must choose someone to fill Jackson’s two-year term in the House.

It’s common for a governor to appoint a member of the governor’s party to fill a vacant judgeship. Still, the state Republican Party criticized Cooper’s choice of Jackson, saying he’s been the “chief Cooper legislative cheerleader” and lacks judicial experience. Cooper’s pick is “an affront to an independent judiciary,” GOP Chairman Michael Whatley said.

Jackson’s appointment is the latest move in the judicial merry-go-round that usually occurs every two years with court elections and retirements.

Berger, a Republican and son of Senate leader Phil Berger, ran for the state Supreme Court seat that became open when Associate Justice Paul Newby ran for the chief justice seat. Berger defeated fellow Court of Appeals Judge Lucy Inman, who stays in her current position. Newby unseated current Chief Justice Cheri Beasley by just 401 votes from nearly 5.4 million cast in the race.

Republicans won all eight appellate court races in November. Democrats now will hold just a 4-3 seat margin on the Supreme Court, compared to their most recent 6-1 advantage. Democrats have held eight of the 15 Court of Appeals seats. Republicans will sit in 10 of those seats with the new year.

Jackson’s previous colleague in his small general-practice firm was Court of Appeals Judge Donna Stroud, a Republican whom Beasley this week elevated to become the court’s next chief judge, succeeding Linda McGee.

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