Gov. Bev Perdue has created a nonpartisan panel to screen candidates for new judges, a move she said would reduce political influence and lead to higher caliber appointments on North Carolina's bench.
Instead of following the normal path of appointing political supporters to the bench, Perdue will choose her judges from three nominees recommended by the N.C. Judicial Nominating Commission, which she formed by executive order Tuesday.
"It is crucial that the people of North Carolina know those selected to serve on the bench are not only well qualified and fair, but also well respected by their peers and communities," Perdue said in a statement. "There is no place for politics when it comes to choosing the state's most honored and influential legal servants."
Her decision came at the urging of the N.C. Bar Association, the chief voice of the state's legal community, which presented the commission plan to Perdue in December. The commission is also backed by the state's five former chief justices and won the support of groups such as the N.C. Center for Voter Education, which is trying to lesson political influence in the judiciary.
"The governor is to be commended," said former Chief Justice Burley Mitchell, a Democrat from Raleigh. "Governors have always had the power to appoint anybody they want. She is volunteering to limit herself to the three nominations to a vacancy."
I. Beverly Lake Jr., a Republican former chief justice from Raleigh, was supportive but more guarded. "Hopefully, we can get a more nonpartisan balance that will advise the governor," he said. "I have some qualms about the structure. But on the whole it is a step forward."
Perdue will appoint eight lawyers and eight non-lawyers - and two who can be either - to the commission. All former chief justices will serve in an advisory capacity. StartingJuly 1, the commission will recommend candidates for the N.C. Supreme Court, N.C. Court of Appeals and Superior Court.
The governor's executive order is part of a larger effort by the N.C. Bar Association to improve the selection of judges. Last week, a bar-backed constitutional amendment was proposed by state Sens. Dan Clodfelter of Charlotte and Fletcher Hartsell of Concord. The commission would recommend two nominees to the governor, the governor would appoint one, and the second one would run against the first in a primary. The winner would later face the voters in a retention election in which voters would be asked to approve or disapprove the judge.
John Wester, a Charlotte lawyer who co-chaired the bar committee, said the public would probably have more confidence in a judge who had been screened by a committee. Wester said public knowledge about judicial candidates is low and voting in judicial elections drops off greatly.
Several ideas about how to improve judicial elections are being debated in the legislature..
Several would return North Carolina to an older system. One bill would change the nonpartisan judicial elections to partisan elections. Another would end public financing for judicial elections.
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