Under the Dome

Former judge, now in legislature, worries about politicizing the courts

Rep. Joe John, a Wake County Democrat, sits in his office at the N.C. General Assembly on March 15, 2017. The first-term legislator defeated a well-known incumbent to win the House District 40 seat by a margin of only 384 votes in November.
Rep. Joe John, a Wake County Democrat, sits in his office at the N.C. General Assembly on March 15, 2017. The first-term legislator defeated a well-known incumbent to win the House District 40 seat by a margin of only 384 votes in November. N.C. Insider

A day after the polls closed in November, someone tweeted at newly-elected state Rep. Joe John: “Please heal our state.”

It still sticks with him. Months into John’s freshman term as the District 40 representative, the Wake County Democrat can still reference it.

“That’s a pretty serious and awesome responsibility and challenge,” he said. “And I’ve tried to take that very seriously and place the common good at the forefront and more partisan considerations somewhere more down the line. And quite frankly, not everybody here does that.”

John, a former judge, says the judiciary should be independent of partisan politics and has spoken against House Bill 100, which makes District and Superior Court elections partisan. The General Assembly has overridden the governor’s veto of HB 100.

John served in the Guilford County District Attorney’s Office, as a District Court judge and then as a resident Superior Court judge. In the 1990s he was elected to the N.C. Court of Appeals, where he served until 2001.

John joined the Division of Motor Vehicles in 2008. In 2010 he was appointed by then-Attorney General Roy Cooper to oversee the State Crime Lab to improve the lab’s performance after serious problems were found there, including the way blood evidence was handled in some criminal cases from 1987 to 2003.

He left the lab in 2014 but wasn’t ready for retirement, or as he said, the rocking chair.

“I guess temperamentally I’m just better suited with being active and having a focus,” he said. “I’ve for awhile had the legislature in the back of my mind ... And the situation developed that I really wasn’t doing anything else and the election was evolving.”

After working in the judicial and executive branches, where he enforced and implemented laws, John said he thought that his experience could help improve laws as they were being written. So he ran against and defeated Rep. Marilyn Avila. It was a close race – only 384 votes separated the two.

“I think (my experience) has been a help, and there have been bills ... that we have debated in which I could offer personal experience,” John said.

Indeed he did. His first speech on the floor was in opposition to HB 100.

In that speech, he said: “I stand here, Mr. Speaker, like some other members, as one who prevailed in a very ugly, partisan election. But unlike any other member here, I also stand here as one who has served for nearly 25 years as a District Court, Superior Court and Court of Appeals judge in the courts of North Carolina. Despite the disturbing notion that creeps up regularly in our media ... I was not, and the good men and women who serve as judges today in our state are not, are not, Mr. Speaker, partisan politicians.”

John said attacks on the judiciary – both in North Carolina and in the nation – are in vogue these days. He worries about the attempted politicization of the judicial branch. “The role of the judiciary is to be an independent, totally independent, monitor of matters that come before individual judges,” he said.

Cooper, now governor, vetoed HB 100 on Thursday, saying that “we need less politics in the courtroom, not more.” Republicans in the legislature say voters should know what judicial candidates’ political affiliations are and are considering overriding the Democratic governor’s veto.

As a state representative, John has the opportunity to express his points of view. One of those views is on independent redistricting. He is a co-sponsor of House Bill 200, which looks to establish a nonpartisan redistricting commission. But he’s also working on a bill of his own that would include retired members of the judicial branch on the redistricting commission. John said that because judges have had to be impartial throughout their careers, they might be well-suited for such a position.

And for John, one of the most pressing issues in the General Assembly this session is the “very deep partisan divide.” However, he sees some of the tides of partisanship changing.

“I think some of our newer members from the Democratic Party are doing our best to reach across the aisle and develop relationships – maybe more likely with the newly elected Republicans – to see if we can’t meet in the middle somewhere on some of these more contentious issues and move our state forward instead of remaining stagnant,” John said.

Lauren Horsch: 919-836-2801, @LaurenHorsch