Bench strength

March 13, 2010 

North Carolina has made some progress in at least refining its dubious custom of electing judges. Statewide judicial candidates who agree to fund-raising limits can gain access to public funds. The idea is to make those judges "voter-owned" as opposed to indebted to special interests. It's a good idea and may help the state avoid big-money races (judicial races in other states have been multimillion-dollar affairs) in these nonpartisan campaigns.

But former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in Greensboro this week to speak at the Elon University School of Law, says the state should move toward not having elected judges. She said the overall quality of judges would improve, as it has in her home state of Arizona. "We are the only nation in the world that elects its judges," O'Connor said.

North Carolina certainly improved its system with the public financing component, but even now judicial races sometimes become very political, and they are not supposed to be that. Judges should be selected on their experience, professional reputations and personal character. They should not campaign, for example, on promises to maintain the preferences of any special-interest group when it comes to the law. (Gun rights are, for example, an ongoing controversy in the judicial system.)

Yes, there's a case to be made that judges at the district court level are held to high standards if they have to face the voters every four years, but even there, an appointed system, with periodic professional reviews by an independent commission, or "retention" elections as part of the mix, would work.

The state has done well with its public financing. Justice O'Connor reminds us we could do better.

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