It is clear that Republicans in North Carolina and Washington are trying to seize control of our independent courts. Here in North Carolina lawmakers in Raleigh have canceled the 2018 judicial primary, want to cut all judge’s terms from 4-8 years down to 2, and propose to do away with election of judges all together and instead cherry-pick their own judges for the bench in order to pass laws that continually are struck down by the courts. This is an outright attack on our independent courts, making them beholden to party ideology. We must have fair and impartial courts in order to maintain our democracy.
In North Carolina, the effort to politicize the judiciary is even more brazen. The Republican-led General Assembly has made judicial elections partisan and moved to gerrymander judicial election districts. Meanwhile, Republicans are proposing a constitutional amendment to have judges at all levels run for election every two years, rather than the current intervals of four or eight years. The frequent elections, in which there would be no primaries, would turn judges into permanent partisan candidates and their races into multiple-candidate carnivals.
Some judges think the extreme call for two-year elections is really intended to get judges to support being appointed by the legislature instead. Appointed judges can be a good thing when the appointments are based on merit as determined by an independent commission. But North Carolina’s judiciary would become hopelessly partisan if judge selection is left to the legislature’s majority party.
Donald Stephens, a Democrat who recently retired after 33 years on the bench in Wake County, has sounded a loud alarm about a likely legislative grab for judicial appointment power. Speaking at a recent forum in Raleigh sponsored by the nonprofit group Policy Watch, Stephens said, “Although they will call it ‘merit selection,’ I assure you it will be partisan selection. It would be a disaster.”
State Rep Joe John, (D-Wake), who was elected to the legislature in 2016 after serving 25 years a a judge, said at the same event, “the North Carolina judiciary is under siege” as Republicans seek “to rip the blindfold of impartiality from Lady Justice.”
The law is a powerful thing, but the legitimacy of the judges who interpret it rests on a delicate public perception of judicial independence. Those who would turn the judicial branch into a party wing will destroy what they claim they’re improving.
Judges, lawyers, law professors and lawmakers must make a major push to preserve and protect the Constitutions of the United States and North Carolina by preserving and protecting an independent judiciary.