State Politics

Cooper criticizes switch to partisan judicial elections – could bill be his first veto?

Two Wake county voters in foreground leave the early voting precinct while others wait in line to vote, background, outside of the Herbert C. Young Community Center early voting site in Cary, NC Friday, March 11, 2016.
Two Wake county voters in foreground leave the early voting precinct while others wait in line to vote, background, outside of the Herbert C. Young Community Center early voting site in Cary, NC Friday, March 11, 2016. hlynch@newsobserver.com

The N.C. Senate has approved a bill that would create partisan elections for District Court and Superior Court judges – a bill that might be Gov. Roy Cooper’s first veto after he criticized the change Tuesday morning.

The Senate voted 32-15 Monday night in support of the change, which would make District and Superior Court judicial candidates go through a party primary, and general election ballots would include the candidates’ party affiliations. Candidates who aren’t registered with a political party would need to go through a petition process to get their names on the ballot.

Monday’s vote was largely along party lines, with Republican Sen. John Alexander of Raleigh joining Senate Democrats in opposing the bill. Most Republicans say the change would give voters useful information about a judicial candidate’s political leanings, but Cooper told reporters Tuesday that he shares fellow Democrats’ concerns that the change could inject politics into the judiciary.

“I have real concerns about throwing judicial races back into the partisan arena,” the governor said. “I think it’s important that they stay out of that as much as possible. I don’t like it.”

Cooper said he hasn’t reviewed the latest version of the bill yet. “I certainly will be talking to legislators as we go forward. I know that there were some changes made in the Senate, which I’ve not had a chance to see yet, but I think that would be bad for our state.”

Because the Senate made minor changes to the original House bill, the House will need to vote again before the legislation goes to Cooper’s desk.

If Cooper vetoes the bill, House Republicans could find it challenging to get the three-fifths majority necessary to override his veto. The House’s first vote was 65-51, with six Republicans opposing the change. That was 56 percent of the legislators present and voting – less than a supermajority – with three Republicans absent.

Senate leader Phil Berger issued a press release Monday night praising the bill. “Judges have the power to make decisions that impact millions of North Carolinians, and voters deserve to know where they stand on the important issues facing our state,” Berger said. “That’s why this bill restores a common-sense and straightforward partisan election system that lets voters know who shares their views on the proper role of the judiciary.”

Superior Court elections were switched from partisan to nonpartisan in 1996, and state leaders made the same change for District Court in 2001.

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.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter

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