North Carolina Dem Gov. Cooper appoints Judge Allison Riggs to fill vacancy on state Supreme Court

September 12, 2023
Ben Marquis

An unexpected vacancy recently opened up on the North Carolina Supreme Court as one of the two Democratic justices announced their intention to resign early ahead of the conclusion of their elected term.

That provided Democratic North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper with an opportunity to name a replacement, and he announced on Monday that he had appointed Court of Appeals Judge Allison Riggs to fill the sudden vacancy on the state high court's bench, according to The News & Observer.

Judge Riggs will replace the now-retired Justice Michael Morgan at the North Carolina Supreme Court, as he appears to be gearing up for a gubernatorial run as a Democratic candidate to replace the term-limited Gov. Cooper in next year's elections.

Supreme Court appointee announced

In a Monday press release, Gov. Cooper announced that he had appointed Judge Riggs to fill the vacancy left by Justice Morgan's retirement as well as former District and Superior Court Judge Carolyn Thompson to fill Riggs' vacancy on the state's Court of Appeals.

"The need for fair-minded, even-handed, honest, experienced judges is more important than ever as our society and our courts wrestle with many critical issues," Cooper said in a statement. "I am grateful for the willingness of Judge Riggs and Judge Thompson to serve our state’s judicial system in these new roles. They each have deep experience and admirable careers of public service that will continue to bring value, honor, and integrity to the judicial branch of state government."

In accepting the appointment, Riggs said at a press conference with Cooper, "I’m going to fight to protect the institution to which I was appointed. An independent judiciary is a critical element of the promise that this country was built upon. There is ample work to be done to make sure that our legal system delivers on equal justice for all, but the institution itself is one I deeply respect."

From activist attorney to Supreme Court justice in less than a year

The News & Observer noted that the appointment of Judge Riggs to replace Justice Morgan would not alter the partisan makeup of the North Carolina Supreme Court, which is currently split 5-2 in favor of Republicans, as a Democratic appointee is replacing the Democratic retiree.

It also pointed out the rapid ascension of Riggs, who had just been appointed by Gov. Cooper to her appeals court position earlier this year to fill a vacancy.

Prior to that appointment, Riggs had been an activist attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, where she was largely focused on voting rights issues and even twice argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, to say nothing of numerous appearances before the state Supreme Court upon which she will now be seated.

Timing allows Riggs to run for re-election as incumbent

As for retired Justice Morgan, WRAL reported in late August that he had unexpectedly announced his intent to retire the week of Sept. 4, well before the conclusion of his elected term, most likely in order to pursue a run for the governorship.

He made clear in a statement at that time that he still had "a desire to make a difference in the state of North Carolina" as well as that "after I get off the court I can focus on how that might best be accomplished."

Interestingly enough, the timing of Morgan's sudden retirement allowed an ample window for Gov. Cooper to appoint his replacement before the court begins its new term and also allows that replacement to run for re-election next year with the advantage of being an incumbent.

Gubernatorial run for Morgan confirmed

Local Fox affiliate WGHP reported Tuesday that the speculation about former Justice Morgan planning a gubernatorial run was confirmed by his announcing his candidacy in a recent interview. He will face off against Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein.

Over on the Republican side is a larger field of around five or six declared or likely GOP candidates for governor who are led by frontrunner Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson.

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