North Carolina lawmakers have spent much of the past year hinting at a much anticipated proposal to change how the judges who rule on the constitutionality of their laws get to the bench.
The vision was rolled out Wednesday evening in a news release from the office of state Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County.
Voters would be asked to approve an amendment to the state Constitution changing how North Carolina fills the seats of judges who resign, retire or are forced out before the end of their elected terms.
It would shift power from the governor, who is elected statewide, to lawmakers elected in districts.
North Carolina voters decide who presides in the courtrooms except in cases of vacancies. In those cases, the governor fills a judicial seat with someone to serve until the next election, when the voters again get their say. Typically, a committee of lawyers from the district familiar with the reputation of their peers suggests a short list from which the governor usually chooses.
The bill proposed by Republican Sens. Warren Daniel, a lawyer from Morganton; Paul Newton a lawyer from Mount Pleasant; and Shirley Randleman, a former Wilkes County Superior Court clerk from Wilkesboro, would shift that power to a nine-member commission and ultimately lawmakers.
Lawmakers, who have spent much of the past several years making changes to the judicial branch that presides over questions on the constitutionality of their legislation, would have a role in appointing the commissioners.
The commission would receive names when a seat is vacant, evaluate each, then pass its findings to the General Assembly, where lawmakers would winnow any list to two nominees from which the governor must choose.
If the General Assembly is not in session when the vacancy occurs, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, currently a Republican, would then have the power to fill the seat.
Senators gave their bill the title “Judicial Vacancy Sunshine Amendment” and described the commission as “a nonpartisan judicial merit commission.”
“After months of public hearings and testimony, it is clear that North Carolinians want to elect their judges, and the Judicial Vacancy Sunshine Amendment ensures voters will continue to have that right in our state,” Daniel, Newton and Randleman said in their joint statement released by Berger’s office.
“It is also clear that voters want a transparent and accountable process for selecting judges — and one area where there currently is no transparency or accountability is the process for filling judicial vacancies, where governors have unrestrained power to place whomever they want on the bench, with no checks and balances.”
Efforts to get comment from Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, were not immediately successful.
Lawmakers at one point considered putting a question on the ballot that would ask voters to give up their power to elect judges for a selection process that would give lawmakers a prominent role.
During hearings earlier this year, that idea was roundly criticized by residents who showed up to urge lawmakers to support the judiciary as a branch of government that should be independent of partisan politics.
Democrats had a very different take on the senators’ proposal released about 10 days before the expected close of the session.
Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat and former district court judge, called the proposal “another power grab for the supermajority to control the courts.”
“What problem is ‘being fixed’?” she asked. “This bill is nefarious, and I hope voters will see through it.”
The call for change comes in the first year in decades in North Carolina in which all judicial races are partisan.
Not only have lawmakers changed some of the election districts in the state’s largest urban counties, they also abolished primary elections for judicial races. That has set up the possibility that ballots for the November elections will have numerous candidates for one seat and more than one from a recognized political party.
Lawmakers had discussed a statewide judicial redistricting plan that would have changed election lines across the state, giving them a more Republican tilt. But that plan was scaled back to one bill out of the state Senate that made changes to district court elections in Wake and Mecklenburg, the two most urban counties, and to Superior Court districts in Mecklenburg, Pender and New Hanover counties.
A House bill awaiting the governor’s signature or veto could also change election districts in several other counties if that happens before the close of the filing period for candidates on June 29.
But the changes are a scale-back of the statewide redistricting plan initially proposed.