At the Fair Courts Town Hall in Greensboro, 175 residents turned out to learn how state lawmakers are trying to take over and politicize our court system. A panel of lawmakers and legal experts shared concerns and answered questions to an engaged audience. It’s true that our legislators are planning a complete overhaul of our legal system by gerrymandering the judicial districts, changing terms for judges from 8-years to 2-years, canceling primary elections for judges, and proposing to stop voters from electing our judges altogether. The people of North Carolina are paying attention and will fight this attack on our independent courts.
I was surprised by how many cars were in the parking lot at Temple Emanuel yesterday evening when I arrived for an event set up by NC Voters for Clean Elections and other groups.
And then to see people lined up to enter the meeting room.
And then to see organizers setting up more chairs.
They, too, were taken by surprise.
Altogether, about 175 people showed up to hear concerns about legislative proposals to radically change state courts.
I am alarmed at actions Republican legislators are taking to reshape the courts into another political branch of state government and have written often about that over the years. But public interest has been minimal.
That is changing, and just in time — an all-out offensive likely will be launched in 2018.
The fact that more people are starting to notice and potentially mobilizing could warn lawmakers about pushing too far.
Unfortunately, only Democratic legislators attended last night. Republican Rep. Jon Hardister at least sent a written statement in which he incredibly asserted, “It is unproductive to assume that these efforts are being driven by partisan politics.”
When the efforts include restoring partisan labels to judicial elections, it’s obvious that partisan politics are driving this process.
Hardister particularly supports the plan to divide Guilford County five ways for the purpose of electing District Court judges, who have forever run countywide. Currently, all Guilford County voters elect all these judges. This means any judge you might stand in front of in court is one you can vote for or against. Under Hardister’s plan, already approved by the House, you could vote only for three in whatever slice of the county where you live. Yet he insists that provides greater accountability. Really? How can you hold accountable the 12 other judges you could no longer vote for or against?
That kind of “logic” is the flimsy cover Republicans are using to fool voters about changes that are really all about partisan politics. In Guilford and other urban counties that vote Democratic, Republican legislators aim to apply partisan gerrymandering to carve out Republican districts — just they have done for political offices.
They also have eliminated primaries in all judicial races across the state for 2018, which likely would create chaotic, multi-candidate elections in November. One of many other proposals under consideration is to shorten terms for all judges to two years. Currently, judges at the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and Superior Court levels have eight-year terms to insulate them from political pressures. District Court judges have four-year terms.
If appellate judges had to run in statewide elections every two years, not only would they be susceptible to political pressures, but they’d have to raise money and campaign almost constantly.
The immediate effect if that scheme were approved would be to end all current terms in 2018 — even for judges who were elected to eight-year terms just last year. This is how badly Republicans want to regain control of the state Supreme Court, which just swung to a Democratic majority in 2016. With only the seats of Republican justices due for election in 2018 and 2020, Republicans have no other shot at recapturing a majority before 2022.
The irony is that the present Supreme Court almost never splits along party lines anyway. Legislators would upset everything with virtually nothing to gain.
All this comes down to the importance of insulating courts from political interference. The courts are meant to uphold the Constitution and the laws without fear or favor. They exist to protect the rights of the people. Their independence and integrity must be preserved.
I’m encouraged that people are starting to pay attention.