RALEIGH — North Carolina’s Democratic governor needed just 15 minutes Monday to replace a resigning Republican judge with an openly gay replacement on the state’s second-highest court, the latest twist in his feud with the GOP-controlled General Assembly.
Exploiting an opening before Republican lawmakers were expected to begin shrinking the Court of Appeals, Gov. Roy Cooper replaced the departing judge with a Democrat who could ease frayed relations with gay supporters still angry over a lack of anti-discrimination protections in North Carolina.
The appointment marked a small political victory for Cooper in his ongoing political battle with Republican lawmakers, who have sought to check his powers since he narrowly thwarted a GOP governor’s re-election bid last year.
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory conceded a loss by about 10,000 votes to Cooper in December. Two weeks later, the GOP-dominated legislature began passing legislation constricting Cooper’s judiciary appointments, control over elections and freedom to appoint his state agency heads.
In a choreographed sequence Monday, Court of Appeals Judge Douglas McCullough resigned and minutes later the governor filled the vacancy with former appeals court judge John Arrowood — leading state Democratic Party officials to cheer the selection.
The appointment comes three days after Cooper had vetoed legislation that would have decreased the appeals court from 15 judges to 12 and blocked Cooper from appointing his own judicial picks as three Republicans approach retirement age. Lawmakers this week were expected to override Cooper’s veto, making the court reduction law.
McCullough was due to leave the court next month when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 72. He said he approached Cooper’s office with the offer to resign now because, with the governor’s appointment, the court would likely continue with 15 members until the court’s next mandatory retirement in about two years.
Republicans hold veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate, where the party expected sufficient support for passage of a reduction in the court’s size.
“I didn’t want my legacy to be the elimination of the seat,” McCullough said, rejecting arguments from Republican lawmakers who say the court doesn’t have enough workload to justify 15 members. It’s second only to the state’s Supreme Court in rank.
“The statistical information that the legislature’s used is not the statistics that we have at the Court of Appeals,” McCullough said. “We’re a very, very busy court.”
Cooper’s decision to appoint a jurist who is gay may help mend relations with gay rights advocates angered when Cooper negotiated a compromise repeal of House Bill 2, said Professor Eric Heberlig of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The state law had limited protections for LGBT people and drew a national outcry.
“I suspect it crossed the mind of Gov. Cooper and his advisers that appointing Judge Arrowood would help to appease some in the gay rights movement who were unhappy with the HB2 compromise,” Heberlig said.
The compromise, reached on Cooper’s watch with Republican lawmakers, blocks cities from passing local anti-discrimination ordinances until a month after the next gubernatorial election in 2020. Gay rights advocates say Cooper should have worked to repeal the entire law.
Arrowood served on the Court of Appeals briefly last decade. He was appointed by a former Democratic governor, Mike Easley, to an open seat in 2007. But Arrowood lost election for that seat the following year and again in 2014.
Amy Auth, a spokeswoman for Republican Senate leader Phil Berger, decried Cooper’s appointing Arrowood. She said Cooper put his partisan allegiance above the voters who had previously rejected Arrowood at the ballot box.