It’s clear that Republican legislators in Raleigh are seeking to gain power over the courts by gerrymandering Democratic leaning districts. In Buncombe county this rigging of the system is obvious. If they control the courts by politicizing them, and gerrymander the districts they can subvert any districts that don’t align with their political ideology. Canceling the primaries creates chaotic ballots, lowering the term limits forces sitting judges to re-run for their fairly won seats. It’s undermining the system, and the will of the voters of North Carolina.
The General Assembly wants to divide our community in two, literally. HB 717 would cleave Buncombe County for electoral purposes. One strongly Democratic, with three judges, and one leaning Republican with four. It’s not to do with our county’s size – we are about the same size as other counties they are leaving whole. From where I sit, this feels like retribution for the innovative work that has been done in Buncombe County, particularly with respect to our treatment courts.
This is just another move in a long, complicated strategy by Republican leadership to make North Carolina’s courts subservient to their political philosophy.
Once nonpartisan, the Republican-led state legislature has injected politics into judicial elections. Judicial candidates now run under the Democratic or Republican brand. If the purpose of the judicial branch is to provide checks and balances on the power of the governor and the State Legislature, wouldn’t it be better if they were independent of party politics?Reasonable people can disagree about the best way to diffuse the influence of politics in the judicial branch. But, the actions taken by the General Assembly clearly take us in a more partisan direction rather than less. Public funding for statewide judicial races was eliminated, forcing candidates for the bench to solicit campaign donations. The year following that change, more than $6 million flooded in, some from out-of-state special interests, to influence the N.C. Supreme Court election.
And yet there is more to come. This week judicial primaries were eliminated for 2018, including for the Court of Appeals and N.C. Supreme Court. The excuse was to give the legislature more time to consider redistricting, and more likely gerrymandering, judicial districts.
The N.C. Supreme Court and Court of Appeals races are statewide. Primaries in those elections would not interfere with redistricting efforts, so why include them? Could it be to secure the re-election of the Republican incumbent, the only N.C. Supreme Court Justice up for re-election in 2018?
Another bill was filed this week to create a ballot measure amending the N.C. Constitution to require judges to run every two years! In an interview with the Charlotte Observer, Bob Orr, a prominent Republican who served as a justice on the state Supreme Court (and as a candidate for governor), described the move as a “continued effort to try and intimidate the judiciary. It’s just wrong,” he said. He went on to say that the amendment sends the wrong message to the judiciary: if judges won’t rule the GOP’s way, lawmakers will retaliate.
What the Republican leadership in the Legislature is doing to our courts is wrong. It threatens judicial independence and undermines the concept of separation of powers, a brilliant concept devised by our forefathers to avoid tyranny by the majority. This is not what justice should look like in North Carolina.