From The News & Observer: Partisanship has no place on the NC bench
Our legislature is tired of having their unconstitutional laws overturned in court. Their solution? Rig the courts. Republicans in Raleigh have canceled the judicial primaries for 2018, creating chaotic ballots. Politicized the courts by making elections partisan. And are now attempting to gerrymander judicial districts, which would double-bunk almost half of all African American judges forcing them to run against each other or step down. This would effectively take away our constitutionally mandated checks and balances and it is wrong. It’s cheating the system plain and simple so that they can continue to defund our public schools, deregulate polluters, and give huge tax cuts to the rich.
The General Assembly recently introduced several bills concerning the manner in which North Carolina elects its judges. As we all learned in civics class, we have three branches of government: executive, judicial and legislative. All three branches are designed to function independently of the others. However, recent actions of our legislative branch seriously threaten the independence of our judicial branch, which in turn undermines the judiciary’s foundation, which is to be subject to the interests of our state’s citizens rather than to another branch of our state government.
Obviously, the legislative branch is designed to be partisan. The same can be said of the executive branch. But for the judiciary to interpret the law honestly and in accordance with applicable legal precedent, it is critical that the judiciary maintain its independence from the legislature. Any legislation exerting undue influence on our judicial branch must be seriously questioned.
Our legislature recently enacted a law that cancels primaries for judicial elections in 2018. This means there can be a number of candidates for judicial positions and, quite simply, the candidate who receives the most votes will be elected to the bench. Can you imagine a race with 10 candidates who each receive approximately the same number of votes, resulting in the election of someone to our Supreme Court or Court of Appeals who only received slightly more than 10 percent of the votes cast for that position? While that might not inherently mean this candidate is unqualified, the process of narrowing the field down to two candidates for a primary election and then voting between those two candidates in the general election, which is how our judges have historically been elected, seems the method more likely to lead to a well-qualified judge chosen by a better-informed electorate.
Our Senate also recently introduced a bill to elect all judges every two years. This would be a stark change from the current system of electing judges to our Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and Superior Court to eight-year terms, and judges to our District Court to four-year terms. Many bar associations in North Carolina, including the NC Bar Association, are on record as favoring judicial appointments through an independent commission rather than judicial elections. And while reasonable minds may differ on whether it is better to elect judges instead of having them appointed by such an independent commission, under either process, the independence and integrity of the judiciary must be maintained.