The N.C. House elections committee voted Tuesday morning to make elections for District Court and Superior Court judges partisan.
House Bill 100 now heads to a vote in the full House after a voice vote, which was largely along party lines with Democrats opposing the change.
If the bill becomes law, District and Superior Court judicial candidates would need to go through a party primary, and general election ballots would include the candidates’ party affiliation. Candidates who aren’t registered with a political party would need to go through a petition process to get their names on the ballot.
Superior Court elections were switched from partisan to nonpartisan in 1996, and state leaders made the same change for District Court in 2001.
Four Republicans are sponsoring the bill and said it would give voters much-needed information about the candidates.
“I believe this has caused confusion and allowed judicial candidates to win for no other reason than their place on the ballot or a catchy name,” said Rep. Justin Burr, a Republican from Albemarle and bill sponsor. “By labeling the candidates, we will provide the voters with at least a general idea of each candidate’s judicial philosophy.”
Rep. Grier Martin, a Raleigh Democrat, said he agrees that voters in local judicial elections often don’t have enough information about the candidates. But he argued that that a candidate’s legal experience is more useful than knowing their party affiliation, which can be found online.
Republicans, however, pointed out that both political parties already endorse judicial candidates and provide lists of candidates at the polls. Rep. Michael Speciale, a New Bern Republican, said he often gets questions when he works the polls about the party affiliation of the judicial candidates.
“They don’t ask who the fairest judges are or which of them have been to Harvard,” he said.
Martin says he worries the change will make the courts more partisan. “You are creating a system that will almost guarantee you will get more judicial activists,” Martin said.
But Rep. Harry Warren, a Salisbury Republican, said he doesn’t think partisan elections will impact the decisions that come out of District Court and Superior Court. “Somebody declaring their political party doesn’t mean they’re a stubborn ideologue,” he said.
A representative from the N.C. Bar Association said the attorneys’ group opposes the bill because it wants judges to be appointed, not elected.
GOP legislators have proposed similar bills for partisan elections in recent sessions, and they succeeded in making N.C. Court of Appeals races partisan for the first time last year. Republicans won all seats available on the Court of Appeals in November, while Democrat Mike Morgan won a nonpartisan race for N.C. Supreme Court. In a post-election special session, lawmakers made Supreme Court races partisan, too.
House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson of Knightdale suggested that partisan Superior and District Court elections might backfire on Republicans in urban counties. He said Wake County has six well-respected judges who are Republicans and don’t typically have trouble winning re-election. But with partisan elections, it’s likely a Democrat – perhaps someone without much experience – would run against them and win in the left-leaning county.
“In some areas of the state like mine, just understand it’s going to hurt your party,” Jackson said.
The proposal on judicial races isn’t the only legislation calling for more partisan elections. Senate Bill 94, sponsored by Republican Sen. Ronald Rabin of Harnett County, would require partisan elections for school boards and municipal offices like mayor and town council as well as judicial races. That bill hasn’t yet been scheduled for a hearing.