RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- There's a big shift in the balance of power coming to North Carolina's State Supreme Court. Next month, a new Republican majority will be sworn in on the state's highest court. And it has triggered concern from some criminal justice reform advocates about the impact on efforts toward more racial equity in the court system.
"I have concern, deep concern for the civil rights of North Carolinians," said attorney Dawn Blagrove, who five months ago, helped convince the Democratic majority on the state Supreme Court to issue a huge decision: ruling life in prison without the possibility of parole violated the state constitution -- if the crime was committed by a child.
The justices ruled that if the offender spent more than 40 years in prison for a crime they committed as a child there must be at least the opportunity for release.
"In North Carolina, at the time, we argued that 91% of all the children sentenced to life without parole were Black," said Blagrove who serves as executive director of criminal justice advocacy nonprofit Emancipate NC. "That decision, however, came with vehement opposition from the Republican minority on the court at the time."
In their dissent, Republican justices accused the Democrats of "judicial activism" -- making decisions based on political affiliation.
Then on Election Day, Republicans flipped the balance of power. The 4-3 Democratic majority became a 5-2 Republican one.
"There's a strong possibility that with this new majority they will revisit this case as soon as they can and overturn that decision," Blagrove speculated.
Mac McCorkle, a former Democratic political consultant and current professor of the practice at Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy, says the power shift is likely fueled by voter assumptions that Republicans will be tougher on crime.
"You're going to see a reversal in criminal justice (reform)," McCorkle said. But the change on the state's high court comes amid a push for a more fair and equitable criminal justice system: more racially-balanced juries and greater police accountability.
North Carolina is one of just 12 states where Black people are more than 50% of the prison population. But they are just 21% of the state's overall population. Criminal justice reform advocates saw the state supreme court as a means to reverse the tide.
"It may have been the most consequential thing that happened in the 2022 midterm in North Carolina, was the gaining of Republican control in the Supreme Court," said McCorkle.
Former state Supreme Court justice Bob Edmunds, a lifelong Republican, sat on the court for 16 years. While he laments some of the accusatory language among justices in recent decisions, Edmunds told ABC11 he is hopeful the high court can keep personal politics out.
"Most of the cases that come before the Supreme Court don't have a political angle," Edmunds said from his law office in Greensboro. "None of the judges I knew in either party ever reacted in the sense of, 'I am a member of X party; I know X party supports this outcome, therefore, I'm going to vote for this outcome.' People gave it their best shot to be objective."
Republicans Richard Dietz and Trey Allen will be sworn in as North Carolina's newest Supreme Court justices at a ceremony in January.