Gov. Roy Cooper is raising concerns about the discussion going on in the General Assembly about changing how judges get to the bench in North Carolina, either through expansive alteration of the districts used to elect judges or abandoning the election system for an appointment process.
This week, Rep. Justin Burr, a Stanly County Republican, opened a House judiciary redistricting committee meeting with maps he proposed for electing judges and district attorneys around the state. At that meeting, there was more discussion about changing how judges are chosen than about the first sweeping overhaul of judicial maps in 62 years.
For the past several months, Burr has been traveling the state presenting his plans for changing the election districts, maps that Democrats say are drawn with the goal of putting more Republicans on the bench. Burr says they would correct piecemeal tweaks made over the years and make the courts more efficient.
While that has been going on, Jim Blaine, chief of staff for Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, has been talking with judges and others about a different idea – a state constitutional amendment that, if adopted by voters, would turn over the appointment of judges to a select few. The details of how such a system would work have not been presented to the public. N.C. Chief Justice Mark Martin, a Republican, has also proposed asking the voters whether the state should appoint judges or continue to elect them.
Nearly a third of the states have adopted what is described as “assisted appointment” to select judges, but the models vary from state to state as to who makes the appointments and to which courts the system applies. In some states such as Virginia, legislators play a key role in appointments. In other states, the governor does. Some states use commissions.
“Given the choice between the people or the legislature selecting judges, I’ll go with the people every time,” Cooper said in a statement Thursday night sent in response to a question from The News & Observer. “The legislature has enough power over the judiciary, and this attempt to change how judges are put on the bench is just the legislature's latest effort to rig the courts. After the courts have overturned more than a dozen of their unconstitutional laws, allowing legislators to influence the selection of judges is not in the best interest of North Carolinians.”
Burr has scheduled a Tuesday meeting for further discussion of his maps. The lawmaker and bail bondsman has said he thought new maps and a proposed amendment to the state Constitution could move forward on parallel tracks.