Under the Dome

Who will choose NC’s judges – Voters? Lawmakers? The governor? New plans released.

NC senators discussed judicial redistricting and what a merit-selection system might look like on Jan. 3, 2018.
NC senators discussed judicial redistricting and what a merit-selection system might look like on Jan. 3, 2018. N&O file photo

There has been talk for months about a plan that could emerge from state lawmakers proposing to abandon the election of judges in North Carolina for an appointment process that would give legislators a key role in deciding who sits on the bench.

Several plans to do just that were revealed on Wednesday toward the end of a meeting of senators chosen by Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican and lawyer who tapped 15 people in the fall to discuss judicial reform and redistricting.

Four plans were presented, and each one gave lawmakers a role in the appointment process. Any plan would be subject to approval by North Carolina voters. They would have to approve an amendment to the state Constitution for judges to be appointed instead of elected.

The selection plan discussed the most, titled the “Purple Plan: Balanced judicial selection plan,” would also give the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, currently Republican Mark Martin, a key role at the start of the process. He would appoint an Independent Merit Selection Commission, made up of seven or nine members, to evaluate all nominees for statewide judicial openings. Candidates for the commission to consider could be nominated by “the people” or self-nominated. Local commissions would evaluate nominees for Superior and District Court judge. Candidates would be rated either “qualified” or “not qualified at this time.”

The names of all qualified nominees would be forwarded to the General Assembly for further consideration. The lawmakers then would narrow the list and forward three names to the governor to consider for a provisional term.

At the second general election following the governor’s appointment, North Carolina voters would either elect or reject the judge for a 10-year term After that, the judge would not be eligible for reappointment to the same court, according to the proposal.

Republican senators said Wednesday that their understanding of the proposal was that existing judges would be grandfathered in, but there weren’t many specifics of how that would work.

Senators had many questions about the plan, but agreed to send a letter to Berger urging him to get together with the speaker of the House, Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, and appoint another select committee of lawmakers from both House and Senate and both parties to further consider the reform proposals as well as judicial redistricting.

The meeting on Wednesday came after a series of letters between the Democrats on the committee and the Republicans.

Democrats suggested a list of speakers. Republicans responded with a list of demands, including getting the governor or his chief counsel to speak at one of the meetings, and for Democrats to present a judicial redistricting plan.

After the walkout

The letters came after Senate Democrats walked out of a Dec. 14 meeting at which the Republican committee chairman refused to let former Wake County judge Donald Stephens address the committee.

Gov. Roy Cooper had sent Stephens, a Democrat who retired last month after serving more than 30 years as a judge before he reached the mandatory retirement age of 72. Stephens has been a critic of the judicial reform proposals, questioning the urgency for change and the reasons behind the proposals.

Sen. Dan Bishop said that since Stephens wasn’t employed by Cooper’s office, he wouldn’t let him speak, though he has since said he should have allowed the judge to give his presentation.

Democratic Sen. Jay Chaudhuri of Raleigh told Bishop that was “a missed opportunity.”

The three Democrats at the meeting that day then got up and walked out. They missed a later presentation in which the Republicans released proposed election maps for judges and district attorneys – lines that were somewhat different from a plan the House approved earlier last year.

Sen. Dan Blue, a Democrat from Wake County, addressed the Republican chairmen and other members of the committee on Wednesday, saying that when the select committee was first formed he had high hopes for what could be accomplished. Since then, Blue said, he had begun to question whether the task was “just a game” and “not a serious effort to get the kind of reform” that he had wanted.

Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, made similar comments.

Republicans challenged assertions that Democrats’ ideas were not welcomed by the committee. They also rejected complaints that they were moving too quickly on judicial reform without getting enough feedback.

“I would like somebody to name another bill we have spent more time on,” Sen. Ralph Hise, a Mitchell County Republican, said. “I think you will find that the $22 billion budget passed with less discussion than this.”

Hise contended that Democrats and other critics “griped” about the process because “they couldn’t find anything about the substance” to fault.

By the end of the meeting, though, senators from both parties agreed to send a request to Berger asking him to appoint another select committee to work together on the issues.

“During its work, the committee attempted to address the imbalances and constitutional concerns present in the current judicial districts, and considered what methods of judicial selection best facilitate an independent, accountable and qualified judiciary,” a letter from senators Bill Rabon, Warren Daniel and Bishop said in their letter to Berger. “While the committee made great progress on both fronts, it concluded that the process has reached the point where collaboration with the House of Representatives is needed to move toward a consensus proposal and potential legislation.”

Hise said during a break in the meeting that though a special session was scheduled to begin next week, he did not think judicial reform and redistricting would be on the agenda the first day. He said he did not know how long the session would last.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1