Under the Dome

NC Republicans canceled an election. Now Democrats are going to court

Voting at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh on March 15, 2016.
Voting at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh on March 15, 2016. jleonard@newsobserver.com

North Carolina Democrats have asked the federal courts to block a law that does away with primaries next year in partisan judicial races.

The state Democratic Party and several county parties, including those in Wake, Durham and Orange counties, sued on Tuesday claiming that the law adopted in October by the Republican-led General Assembly is unconstitutional because it prohibits the political party from the “special protection” afforded to it in the First and Fourteenth amendments to select candidates who best represent the party’s philosophies and policies.

The Democrats involved with the lawsuit have asked the court to take action before February, when candidate filing for the 2018 elections opens in North Carolina.

State Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin said Republicans are “rigging the system.” Senate leader Phil Berger fired back that the lawsuit is part of Democrats’ “continued abuse of the court system.”

The law canceling judicial primaries came in the same year that lawmakers made all judicial races partisan — from the state Supreme Court to the district courts, where traffic cases, custody issues and misdemeanors are heard.

And the General Assembly continues to focus on the courts — a government branch that was designed to be independent from the legislative and executive offices whose laws and policies they can strike down if they run afoul of the state or federal constitutions.

Lawmakers are weighing vast changes to election districts that have determined the state’s 272 district court judges, 109 superior court judges and elected district attorneys. When lawmakers canceled judicial primaries, Republican Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County said the move was necessary to provide candidates time to study proposed new districts.

As the maps remain unresolved, Berger’s chief of staff has been floating the possibility of lawmakers asking voters whether the state should abandon the election of judges and move toward an appointment process to decide who sits on the bench.

What question would be posed to voters remains unclear. No proposal for an amendment to the state Constitution has been released publicly. A state Senate committee was set to meet Wednesday afternoon to discuss judicial reform and redistricting proposals.

The lawsuit filed by Democrats lists Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, state House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, and the state Board of Elections as defendants.

“Speaker Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Berger’s cynical move to eliminate judicial primaries deprives the people of North Carolina of their most fundamental right — the right to vote,” Goodwin, the N.C. Democrats’ chairman, said in a statement. “Legislative Republicans are rigging the system, not creating a better system of selecting judges. North Carolinians have a right to make an informed decision about who they want as their judicial nominee. This move unjustly eliminates that right and should be immediately struck down.”

When Republicans made judicial races partisan, they said it would give voters more information.

“Unable to win control of the legislature at the ballot box or to sustain the governor’s veto of legislation that doesn’t serve their political goals, Roy Cooper and the Democrat party are now attempting to turn the judiciary into a full-time partisan battleground to achieve political outcomes they don’t have the votes to deliver on their own,” Berger said in a statement Wednesday. “Their continued abuse of the court system erodes the confidence of North Carolinians that the judiciary is anything more than another partisan boxing ring rather than the fair and impartial venue for justice that it is designed to be.”

Without primaries, ballots in judicial races could have many names on them. A candidate with just 30 percent of the vote could become a judge, according to changes in the law adopted in October. That, Democrats contend in their lawsuit, makes it difficult for the party to put forward its best candidate.

“Legislative Republicans have yet to offer any compelling reason for eliminating judicial primaries other than their own desire to bend our court system to their will,” Goodwin stated. “The result will be unnecessary chaos and confusion at the ballot box. The courts should strike down this unconstitutional political move and ensure that North Carolina voters get to cast a vote for the judge of their choice in the primary.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1

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