It would be a constructive move from the leaders of the North Carolina General Assembly to move ahead with a plan to select judges in North Carolina based on merit – not on the ability of judicial candidate to gather votes in a partisan election.
Unfortunately, Republicans on Jones Street have attempted to make judicial races more, not less, partisan by passing a law to make Superior Court and District Court races partisan. Republicans claimed Democrats made such races nonpartisan because they were losing the seats. Democrats say making the elections partisan will lead to tough primaries and force judicial candidates to take ideological stands that would indicate how they’d rule in a given case. And the judiciary is supposed to be one place where the occupant of a court seat at any level is supposed to govern a trial and make decisions without any political considerations whatsoever.
But now North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin, a Republican, has been pushing the idea of “merit selection” of judges, and it is a good idea, one overdue for adoptions by lawmakers. (He made his pitch at a state Bar Association meeting.)
There are a number of alternatives to having candidates for judgeships campaign as if they were running for seats in the legislature with all the partisanship involved.
The current system makes future judges like every other politician, and they shouldn’t be. When citizens go in a courtroom, they should look up on the bench and see someone they trust to render a fair trial, someone who will give fair, unbiased instructions to a jury, who will rule on objections and exchanges between attorneys based solely on the law. The occupants of the bench should be top lawyers who are interested in public service, perhaps attorneys who want to “give something back” after careers in the law. But the current system is no guarantee of any of that. It rewards the best campaigners, and perhaps those who are willing to take ideological stands in order to get votes.
On The News & Observer’s Other Opinion page today, Campbell University law school dean Rich Leonard, a former federal judge, makes a strong case for merit selection, with his idea being a panel of respected state leaders to assist the governor with candidates.
It’s not a bad idea at all, and in fact there are several ways to have “merit” as the main measurement of judicial candidates. There could be committees from local or state bar associations to vet candidates, making nominations to the governor, or even some kind of review by a committee of legislators – though there’s a partisan risk there.
And the point of any merit selection system should be to “de-politicize” the process of picking judges. It’s good that the discussion is itself bipartisan, and Republicans could gain a lot of due credit if, while holding power in Raleigh, they supported merit selection as the right thing to do because it is the wise thing to do to protect the integrity of North Carolina’s courtrooms.