Report: Stroud -Dillon switchout on NC Court of Appeals part of NEW Newby “plan”

The state’s political universe has been buzzing about Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby‘s removal of fellow Republican judge Donna Stroud as chief judge of the state’s Court of Appeals.  Lots of folks are seeing sinister, sleazy political fingerprints all over the place.  But Law360 managed to get Judge Stroud to shed some light on the matter:

North Carolina Chief Justice Paul Newby is putting into place a rotating system for the position of chief judge on the Court of Appeals, but details about the novel concept are still unknown, according to the intermediate appellate court’s now-former chief judge.

Judge Donna Stroud’s sudden removal from the helm of the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the subsequent appointment of her colleague Judge Chris Dillon to the top spot grabbed the legal community’s attention Wednesday, though the shake-up on the bench wasn’t as jarring as some may have thought.

Justice Newby informed her on Dec. 19 that she was being moved out of the chief judge position, Judge Stroud said, although she remains on the bench.

“All of us here at the Court of Appeals are continuing to work hard on getting our cases done as efficiently as we can and working together to make the transition as smooth as we can,” Judge Stroud told Law360 on Thursday.

The state Supreme Court chief justice told her he had been contemplating terms for the appeals court chief judge seat for some time and decided to implement the new system Jan. 1, Judge Stroud said. Justice Newby expressed a desire to spread out of the administrative tasks of the chief judge, so one jurist wasn’t saddled with those duties at all times.

How long the chief judge will serve in that position isn’t known, according to Judge Stroud. Most details about the new rotating system are unclear.

A message seeking comment from the state Supreme Court wasn’t immediately returned Thursday.

While her removal wasn’t as abrupt as it first appeared, Judge Stroud labeled the Dec. 19-to-Jan. 1 turnaround “extremely quick.”

“If we had more notice it would have been a much smoother process,” she told Law360.

She pointed to the appeals court’s January case calendar, which was put together months before the court knew about the transition, still labeling her a chief judge. Details like that could have been worked out had she known about the shift earlier, according to Stroud.

Judge Stroud, a Republican, tamped down rumors that Chief Justice Newby, also a Republican, removed her from the post for political reasons or the hiring of a former Democrat as a clerk, a controversy that arose during the primary season of 2022, causing Judge Stroud to face an opponent that year.[…]

That’s funny, because this article from BusinessNC in 2022 pretty much nailed Supreme Court Justice Phil Berger, Jr. as the culprit behind the primary challenge — with the motive being the dispute over hiring the clerk.  (*I tell ya. The sky IS THE LIMIT when your daddy controls everybody’s funding in state government.  WHO in their right mind, is going to say NO to you?*)


[…] Her record as a conservative jurist who aligned with other Republicans, such as Justices Richard Dietz and Philip Berger Jr., during their time on the appeals court speaks for itself, Stroud said.

Judge Stroud was elected to the Court of Appeals in 2006 and appointed chief judge in January 2021.

Having served three years in the position, Judge Stroud speculated that that time frame might be the term for appeals court chief judges under Chief Justice Newby’s new system.

Judge Stroud called her time at the helm a “privilege,” and noted her accomplishments, including guiding the court through the depths of the pandemic, transitioning to more online court functions and working with new judges and their staff.

“I enjoyed doing it very much and was honored to do it,” she said.

Back to BusinessNC.  Apparently, Justice Berger, Jr. — aka “Baby Berger” to fans throughout NC politics — spilled the beans about l’affaire Stroud in a “leaked Facebook message”:

N.C. Supreme Court Justice Phil Berger Jr. isn’t on the ballot this year, but he’s taking an active role in determining which GOP candidates for appellate courts make it to the November election.

Berger, whose father is Senate leader Phil Berger, has endorsed candidates in a Supreme Court primary and two contested primaries for the N.C. Court of Appeals. Other Republican judges and legislators have joined him in supporting those candidates: Trey Allen for Supreme Court and Beth Freshwater Smith and Michael Stading for Court of Appeals.

The Freshwater Smith endorsement is the most interesting because she’s running against Court of Appeals Chief Judge Donna Stroud, the most senior member of the court. Berger made it clear in a leaked Facebook message that his opposition to Stroud is less about her judicial record and more about a hiring decision he disagreed with.

Last summer, Court of Appeals judges decided to name Gene Soar as the court’s new clerk. Berger says he was the preferred candidate of the court’s Democratic judges, and that a Republican should have gotten the job instead. He noted that one of the applicants was his former law clerk.

Soar, however, wasn’t hired by Stroud alone. The court’s 10 Republicans and five Democrats voted by secret ballot on the appointment. Berger said in the Facebook message that Stroud “whipped the votes.”

Berger’s campaigning comes after a kerfuffle at the Judicial Standards Commission, where a memo said that judges who aren’t up for re-election this cycle shouldn’t make endorsements. That memo was later revised to remove that directive – around the same time that the commission’s executive director announced her departure.

Asked about Berger’s involvement, Stroud cited the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct. “In short, although judges are elected officials who must campaign, judges still have a duty to protect and defend the judiciary from inappropriate political interference,” she said in a written statement. “My primary election this year has presented unprecedented issues testing the limits of the Code of Judicial Conduct and challenging the independence and integrity of the court.”

[….] In another rare move, two PACs are getting involved in the primaries, putting out ads and mailers that support the three candidates endorsed by Berger and attack Stroud.

One of the mailers, from a newly formed group called NC For Justice PAC, points out that Stroud was appointed chief judge by then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, a Democrat. The mailer doesn’t mention that it’s common for the most senior judge to get the job, and Stroud currently serves in the job under an appointment from Republican Chief Justice Paul Newby.

NC For Justice hasn’t yet filed financial disclosures listing its donors. But forms list its headquarters as a Yanceyville post office box that is also used by Yanceyville Town Councilman Keith Tatum. Berger called Tatum a “good friend” in a Facebook post when the justice administered his oath of office in December. And Berger’s own campaign finance report shows he gave the group $4,000.

Berger also shared a Facebook post from the other PAC, called “True Conservative Judges.” It has received about $500,000 from a Virginia-based group called the Good Government Coalition. That organization, funded in the past by the Republican State Leadership Committee, paid for ads in the 2020 legislative races criticizing Democratic candidates.[…]

I’m hearing we’re just at the tip of the iceberg on this thing.  Stay tuned.