Voters would give state Supreme Court justices a thumbs-up or thumbs-down rather than choose between candidates, under a bill advanced in the Senate on Thursday.
Retention elections would begin next year if House Bill 222 passes. Senators voted 35-13 to approve the change; a final vote is needed, and then the bill returns to the House to consider concurring in changes the Senate made.
Originally, the House wanted to include state appeals court judges in the change. The Senate narrowed it to only the Supreme Court.
If a justice was retained, he or she would then serve an eight-year term. If not, then the governor would appoint someone to fill the vacancy, and that justice would run for election after two years.
Sponsors say the motivation behind the bill is to help control increasingly expensive judicial elections.
Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, said the immediate impact of the bill would be to protect a single Republican incumbent, Justice Bob Edmunds, who is the only incumbent whose term expires next year. Edmunds was elected in 2000 and re-elected in 2008, and he intends to run for re-election.
"To me it appears cravenly political if we make this change," Stein said. "It should be called the Justice Bob Edmunds Protection Act."
Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, a Democrat who represents eight counties in the northeastern corner of the state, unsuccessfully tried to delay the bill’s effective date for a year, saying voters needed more time to be educated about such a major change.
She also pointed out that Edmunds is 66 years old and if he was elected to another eight-year term he wouldn’t be able to complete it, because 72 is the mandatory retirement age for justices.