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North Carolina Republican legislators now want to give up on the law they approved two years ago that reduces the number of Court of Appeals judges from 15 to 12 as retirements and other vacancies arise.

A state Senate judiciary committee Tuesday recommended unanimously a bill that would keep the court's size at 15 after all. Bill sponsors say the measure, if agreed to by the full General Assembly, should end as moot a lawsuit filed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper challenging the 2017 law. A key House GOP leader said later that he believed party members in his chamber are inclined to go along with the repeal.

A trial-judge panel actually sided with Republicans last year in upholding the law, but the state Supreme Court scheduled oral arguments in the case for March 4. With registered Democrats a strong majority on the Supreme Court, there's uncertainty about whether they'll be inclined to uphold the law.

"I think we still feel the rationale for the bill was appropriate, but this will end the lawsuit with the governor, and so that's why we're going forward with it," said Sen. Warren Daniel, a Burke County Republican and a chief bill sponsor.

The law is one of several approved by the GOP-controlled legislature since December 2016 — just before Cooper took office — that have eroded Cooper's powers. In this case, it would prevent Cooper from filling three vacancies when they occur, because the seat would be simply eliminated.

No vacancies have occurred on the intermediate-level court since the law took effect, but the first could come next month. Court of Appeals Judge Bob Hunter, a registered Republican, must step down March 31 after meeting the state-mandated judicial retirement age of 72 the day before.

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