Chief judge is replaced in a shakeup on the North Carolina Court of Appeals

Published 4:25 pm Saturday, January 6, 2024

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By Gary D. Robertson, Associated Press

North Carolina’s chief justice has quietly replaced the next leader of the state’s intermediate-level appeals court in a move that appears to run counter to tradition at the state Court of Appeals.

The new chief judge of the 15-member Court of Appeals is Judge Chris Dillon, whose appointment to the position took effect Monday. Dillon succeeds Judge Donna Stroud, who had been chief judge since January 2021 and remains on the court. She suggested in an interview Wednesday that her ouster could in part have a political explanation.

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The chief judge oversees the administration of the court, whose responsibilities include assigning members to three-judge panels that consider cases and scheduling sessions for oral arguments. The panel’s rulings can be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

State law directs Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby to pick a chief judge, who serves at his pleasure. The law sets no method for choosing or a term length.

Stroud joined the court in 2007 and has the longest continuous tenure. She said Wednesday in an interview that the court’s short history — it opened in the 1960s — indicates the most senior judge has held the chief judge’s position.

Stroud said Newby told her on Dec. 19 that Dillon would be replacing her on Jan. 1. Stroud said Newby told her he had thought about rotating the role of chief judge among the court members, like court systems in the federal and some state courts do.

Such a rotating system could ease administrative burdens placed upon a single judge.

“I’ve enjoyed being chief judge,” Stroud said. “It’s challenging, but … I certainly did not perceive it to be a burden,” she added.

Stroud, who like Newby and Dillon is a registered Republican, was named chief judge by Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, a Democrat, as she was leaving her job at the end of 2020. Beasley had narrowly lost the 2020 statewide chief justice election to Newby. Stroud replaced Linda McGee, who didn’t seek reelection to the court that year.

The state court system has not formally announced the change beyond identifying Dillon as chief judge on the court’s website. The system did not respond to emails seeking information on the move and comment from Newby.

Stroud faced a 2022 Republican primary challenger who had support from several GOP legislators and some judicial officials, including Supreme Court Associate Justice Phil Berger Jr. Mailers from conservative groups criticized Stroud as liberal and backed her opponent. Stroud won the primary and another eight-year term in the general election.

An intra-court partisan battle over who became the clerk of the Court of Appeals also caused some Republicans to be unhappy with Stroud, news outlets reported.

When asked Wednesday what role politics played in her removal, Stroud replied: “Obviously everyone’s familiar with that primary. And it seems to me that this would be a continuation of the same.”

Republicans hold 11 of the 15 Court of Appeals seats and five of the seven Supreme Court seats.

The transition from Dillon to Stroud has been swift. Stroud pointed out that other states have laws or rules that set terms for the chief judge and other provisions for an orderly transition.

“I’m going to do all I can do to continue working to make sure that our court works well … and to do anything that I can to minimize the disruption that this sudden change could cause,” she said.

Dillon was first elected to the Court of Appeals in 2012. Court of Appeals Judge Jeffery Carpenter will replace Dillon as chair of the Judicial Standards Commission.