North Carolina lawmakers were nearing the end of a meeting Friday about a proposal to shift the power to appoint judges to vacant District Court seats from the governor to the General Assembly.
John Blust, a Guilford County Republican and Greensboro lawyer not seeking re-election this year, had a question for the state senators and representatives gathered in the room.
“Why are we competent to make this kind of decision on appointing judges” Blust asked. “Why do we want to take on one more thing that may not be an area we have expertise when we claim we have limited time and we can’t get to so many important subjects because of that limited time?”
Blust, who has served nine terms in the state House and one term in the state Senate, said since he was not seeking another term he would speak freely about the power structure of the General Assembly.
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Since Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s election in 2016, Republican lawmakers have tried on more than one occasion to shift the power to appoint judges from the governor’s office to the General Assembly.
Through the past decade, the Republicans have seen key provisions of their legislative agenda overturned by the courts.
Rep. Justin Burr, a Stanly County Republican who has been leading an effort to change election districts for judges across the state, resurrected a House proposal to change how some judicial vacancies are filled.
Under the plan, which has not yet gotten Senate approval, the legislature would fill vacancies on the district court and for special judges.
Currently, the governor fills vacancies in the district courts, which handle traffic cases, custody disputes and misdemeanor criminal charges. Attorneys in the district where the post is vacant make appointment recommendations, but the governor can choose someone not on the list.
Judges who are appointed then must stand for election, and Republicans interested in changing the process say that gives Cooper too much of a hand in the judicial process.
The lawmakers also discussed a proposal to take the governor out of the process of appointing special judges who handle complex business cases and more. Though the governor’s appointments are subject to lawmakers' confirmation, they want more control over the appointments.
Burr said giving the job to the legislature would promote public input, transparency and broader accountability.
“Currently, many of these vacancies are filled in secret behind the iron fence of the governor’s mansion with no involvement from the public whatsoever, and I have had a problem with that for years,” Burr said.
Burr pitched the idea as one that would bring more transparency to the process of who rules in the courtroom.
But Democrats and others who have been critical of all the changes Republicans have proposed for the courts in recent years questioned that wisdom.
“It’s kind of interesting that we’re talking about transparency of the process, and if I’m reading this correctly, we’re kind of back to the same thing in the interim,” said Rep. Robert Reives II, a Democrat and Sanford-based lawyer. “You get a couple people in the same room making the decisions and that’s it, so I don’ really see how that is a different process.”
Blust, who voted against the proposal, made a similar observation, noting that “a few people” in the General Assembly “hold most of the cards.”
“The governor’s one person, but he’s elected statewide,” Blust said. “Why are we competent to make this kind of decision?"
Republicans have characterized their map proposals as changes geared toward fixing piecemeal judicial redistricting over the past five decades. Some have talked about trying to bring a diversity of judicial philosophies to the bench, too.
"This just seems just baldly political to me," said Sen. Terry Van Duyn, a Buncombe County Democrat who has been critical of plans to change the districts in her county.
It’s unclear if or when the proposals will get further airing by state lawmakers.
The committee organized to discuss judicial changes left on Friday without making any recommendations or scheduling any more meetings.
The General Assembly goes back into session on May 16.
Sen. Warren Daniel, a Burke County Republican and co-chairman of the committee, said it was his opinion that some of the proposals could be put to a vote, but he did not elaborate on which ones.
"Republican legislators have seen more than a dozen of their unconstitutional laws overturned in court so now they want to handpick their judges," Ford Porter, a spokesman for Cooper, said in a statement after the meeting. "Legislative Republicans should respect our state’s Constitution instead of repeatedly working to inject partisan politics into our courts. "