Under the Dome

Roy Cooper once backed appointment of NC judges. Here’s what he says now.

N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper holds a press conference at the Executive Mansion in Raleigh on March 30, 2017.
N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper holds a press conference at the Executive Mansion in Raleigh on March 30, 2017. cseward@newsobserver.com

While Gov. Roy Cooper voiced opposition this week to replacing judicial elections with an appointment system, he supported the switch as a state senator 22 years ago.

Legislators have indicated they're considering a judicial appointment system as well as a House bill redrawing district court and superior court districts, and further discussion will come during a January special session. Cooper has vetoed a bill that would cancel the 2018 judicial primaries, a move Republicans say is designed to give the legislature more time to consider changes. Cooper said in his veto message that it's "the first step toward a constitutional amendment that will rig the system so that the legislature picks everybody's judges in every district instead of letting the people vote for the judges they want."

But in 1995, Cooper voted for a bill that called for a constitutional amendment that would give the governor the power to nominate judges, who'd then be confirmed by the legislature. The judges would later face voters in a retention election, when voters would vote on whether to keep the judge in office, but they wouldn't have the option to pick another candidate for the seat.

The proposal passed the Senate in a 42-6 bipartisan vote, but it failed to get the supermajority required to pass the House and then go before voters in a ballot referendum. In addition to voting for the bill, Cooper at the time was chairman of the Senate Judiciary I Committee, where he would have scheduled the initial hearing and votes on the bill.

At the time of the legislation, Democrats controlled the governor's mansion and the Senate, while Republicans had a majority in the House.

Asked if his stance on appointing judges had changed since the 1995 bill, Cooper issued a statement Tuesday detailing his position. "What we're seeing now is an effort to take over the judiciary for political reasons instead of trying to find a way to get the best judges," he said. "Election of judges isn't perfect but it's far better than this legislature controlling who the judges are going to be in every district at every level. I don't think the people of North Carolina want to give up the right to vote for their own local judges and give that power to legislative political party bosses in Raleigh.”

Details of a potential judicial selection process haven't emerged at the legislature, but Senate leader Phil Berger said in a statement Tuesday that merit selection similar to the 1995 proposal is being considered.

"We agree North Carolinians deserve a system that places the best possible judges on the bench, and that's why we are exploring all options including judicial redistricting and the merit selection process that Gov. Cooper once championed," Berger said. "Unfortunately, the governor exposes his hypocrisy and partisanship by opposing a policy he once supported now that he knows any future system to select judges would require Republicans and Democrats to work together instead of being controlled solely by Democrats."

Sen. Ralph Hise, a Mitchell County Republican, said that retention elections could be one of the potential options. "Our election of judges in this state is a flawed process," he said during last week's debate. "Most voters when you go to the ballot are unaware of judicial candidates, where they stand on issues."

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter