It is true that dissatisfied defendants and prosecutors often complain about the judges who presided over their cases. “Favors the district attorneys,” one will say. “A liberal who always gives a break to defendants,” another will say.
And indeed justice is sometimes hampered by judges who aren’t gifted with the knowledge of the law and the sound judgment we require of those who sit up high in the robes with the gavel in hand. When that judgment is particularly bad, appropriate disciplinary action must be taken, or the credibility of the entire judicial system is undermined.
Hence the importance of the state Judicial Standards Commission, a panel charged with publicly reviewing complaints against judges and a panel that has done a good job.
Why, then, would a last-minute bill pass the General Assembly that would allow complaints involving judges to be secret? How is it a good idea to take away the commission’s authority to publicly reprimand judges and instead put the state Supreme Court in charge of disciplining judges?
The measure had strong support in the state Senate, but cooler heads almost prevailed in the state House, where the measure passed by a narrow 53-48 vote.
If Gov. Pat McCrory is watching, he knows that the margin in the House is not veto-proof, and a veto in this case is sorely needed.
The measure is opposed by Chief Judge John Martin of the Court of Appeals (and the current head of the standards commission) and Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Parker. Martin wrote lawmakers saying the law “will create potential conflicts of interest within our judiciary and muddle the transparency and availability of public records related to judicial misconduct.”
That ought to be enough for McCrory to say no to this bill. If it’s enacted into law, disciplinary proceedings involving judges would go behind closed doors, and judges on the highest court would be called upon to discipline, or not discipline, a close colleague.
There’s no need to change the law, as its proponents say, to protect judges against frivolous complaints. The overwhelming majority of complaints filed against judges are, predictably, dismissed after investigation.
McCrory campaigned on the theme that state government was “broken” and that he and his fellow Republicans were going to fix it. This is a case where a part of government is not broken but might well be if the governor goes along with this wrongheaded change.