Republicans had a quick fix for their concern that new Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper was soon to replace at least two Republican judges on the state Court of Appeals because of their mandatory retirement. GOP legislators just cut the size of the court. Their action came with some weak-kneed excuse about the court being too large, but that really didn’t mean much. They cut the court because Cooper was likely to appoint Democrats.
Likewise, they cut the number of emergency judges, funding for legal-aid organizations that help lower-income people and in one of the most egregious political actions in recent memory, sliced $10 million from the budget of the state attorney general, just because they could. Josh Stein’s sin was being a Democrat who beat a Republican to become AG.
No matter that Stein will lose lawyers who fight for consumers wronged by companies large and small, or that he’ll lose lawyers who specialize in complicated prosecutions of those charged with serious crimes. No matter, indeed, that Stein himself headed the AG’s consumer protection division and was a respected former member of the state Senate.
Republicans who run the General Assembly went hunting Democrats, and they didn’t much care who got hit. And just to make sure voters knew who to target themselves, GOP lawmakers made judicial races partisan again. They want that “D” or “R” beside the names on ballots, even though judges are supposed to be fair and impartial and really nonpartisan in their rulings, at least.
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As reported by The News & Observer’s Anne Blythe, those in organizations that watch the courts, and many judges and attorneys for that matter, are concerned about what legislators might do next to further politicize the system of justice in North Carolina.
Oh, yes, let’s do remember that it’s the system of “justice” we’re talking about. Not elections. Not campaigning. Not partisan back-and-forth. At the end of the day, the structure of the court system, how people are elected, who is elected, etc., all affects justice.
In at least one case, there’s already been a flash of what might be in store. State Rep. Justin Burr of Albemarle has floated maps that changed districts in which judges and prosecutors are elected.
For those who’ve watched the fiasco of blatantly partisan redistricting of legislative districts by General Assembly Republicans — their districts having been ruled unconstitutional by the courts — the idea that GOP leaders would now take on judicial districts is frightening. It’s bad enough that candidates who used to run as non-partisan in keeping with the view that judges ought not to be aligned with political philosophies given the need for them to be down-the-middle in their rulings now are labeled. Changing districts with the intention of giving one party an advantage — which surely would be the Republicans’ intention — would take the justice system down a dangerous path.
And make no mistake, it would have a bad effect on every level of the court system. One can imagine District Court candidates trying to “out law-and-order” each other, or a judicial candidate posing with presidential candidates of their party (no matter that those presidential candidates would have no impact on courts).
And perhaps most important: Judicial races, in more partisan districts, would get more and more expensive, necessitating potential judges soliciting money from all sorts of special interest groups. Even the change to partisan races made them more expensive.
Finally, what about the effect of ever-increasing partisanship on the quality of candidates for judicial races? An attorney who might choose to end his or her career on the bench because the person felt experience might be valuable in that job, or a younger person who simply felt the call to public service out of a spirit of wanting to make the system work better — these individuals might not want to subject themselves to a rough-and-tumble political campaign in which they’d face advertisements questioning their competence created by professional political consultants.
No one would be naive enough to believe that politics has never played a role in judicial races or in rulings. But Republicans in the General Assembly seemed determined to ensure that the judicial branch of government becomes not a check and a balance, but just a supporting player for legislators. That is a woefully wrong philosophy.