Bill makes judge selections more political

August 1, 2013 

The way it was done is one key to how bad an idea it is. If, for example, allowing a governor to select whomever he or she wants when a vacancy comes up on District Court, without following a local bar association’s recommendation, is so great, why was it slipped into an unrelated bill on prisoner medical care shortly before the legislature adjourned?

Undoubtedly because those pushing this not-so-bright idea wanted it that way. The bill passed within hours of adjournment of the General Assembly last week, and after it seemed lawmakers thought it was a dead issue.

Which is what it deserved to be.

District Court, sometimes called the “people’s court,” is that part of the judicial system closest to the public, and the one most people who have anything to do with the court system are likely to encounter. It’s where civil disputes of $10,000 or less are settled, and includes traffic court, child support, alimony disputes and divorce cases. Judges are elected. But on occasion, a post comes open and current law has the governor appointing successors. The system as it stands requires the governor to choose from among three candidates chosen by the local bar.

How much more sensible could the system be? Local lawyers know their colleagues best. They have an idea from daily interaction with them who might have the kind of character and judgment needed to be a District Court judge, a job that requires first a deep knowledge of the law but also a generous measure of common sense.

Colleagues can measure those qualifications up close and among themselves. That’s important, because there may be many people who want to be District Court judges who are simply not qualified, but like the idea of having the job for the wrong reasons.

That’s why members of a local bar already influence the process by encouraging colleagues to run for the courthouse, or discouraging them from doing so.

This preposterous bill would still have the bar involved, nominating five candidates, but a governor would be under no legal obligation to choose from among those.

First, five is too many. The current rule is that three candidates will be chosen, and then the governor makes the call.

Even governors who have been lawyers (and the last two have not been) would be unlikely to have any great familiarity with the best lawyers to fill judges’ seats except in their own communities. Relying on the local bar is the best system for an informed choice and therefore the best system for justice.

State Sen. Tim Moore of Cleveland County voted for the bill, though as a lawyer he ought to know better. He defends it as right because the governor is elected and the bar is not. That’s one of the more ridiculous twists of logic heard lately, and a good many have been logged on Jones Street this session. Giving the bar influence over these choices takes politics out of the equation, at least as much as it can be removed. Giving the governor absolute authority guarantees politics will be in it.

Look at how House Speaker Thom Tillis pushed big political contributors for no less than the University of North Carolina Board of Governors. Who’s to say a governor...not just Gov. Pat McCrory but any governor...might take a look at contributors’ lists when pondering to whom to award a six-figure seat on the bench?

This is a bad, bad law, and there is something that McCrory can do that is political but that would be a positive step. He could veto this legislation, explaining to the Republicans who pushed it that it is unwise and by the way, could be used against Republicans when a Democrat comes back to the governor’s office one day.

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