State Politics

Veto override means voters will know judges’ party affiliations

N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper delivers his first State of the State address to a joint session of the state legislature in the House chamber of the Legislative Building in Raleigh, NC on March 13, 2016.
N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper delivers his first State of the State address to a joint session of the state legislature in the House chamber of the Legislative Building in Raleigh, NC on March 13, 2016.

Voters casting ballots for judges next year will know the political parties of the candidates.

Republicans who control the General Assembly say that gives voters helpful information. Democrats say it politicizes the courts.

House Bill 100 makes Superior Court and District Court elections partisan, completing a change that the legislature began with appellate courts including the state Supreme Court.

On Thursday, the state Senate with little discussion overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of HB 100 by a vote of 32-15, with two Republicans voting against the override: Sen. John Alexander of Raleigh and Sen. Danny Earl Britt of Robeson County. The House had voted 77-44 the day before to override the veto.

The measure will restore party primaries for trial-court races. Political affiliations will be included on the general-election ballot.

The law will add a hurdle for unaffiliated judicial candidates like Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Jim Ammons, who said he shifted his voter registration from Democratic last year because partisan politics should have no place in the courtroom.

People who belong to political parties can simply pay a filing fee to get their names on a ballot in a partisan election. But if any of the state’s 2 million unaffiliated voters want to run for office, they have to get signatures endorsing their candidacy from 2 percent of the registered voters in their district.

In Cumberland County, Ammons would need more than 2,100 signatures.

Ammons was disappointed by the change. He sees a benefit to having no “R” or “D” designations by judicial candidates’ names.

“I think it lends more to people having to learn about us,” Ammons said. “I get to tell voters the things I’ve done with my life.”

Superior Court elections were switched from partisan to nonpartisan in 1996, and District Court elections were changed in 2001.

“Democrats removed party labels from the ballot because they were losing those elections,” state Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes said in a statement.

Hayes and other Republicans contend those changes have disenfranchised voters, noting that hundreds of thousands fewer North Carolinians voted for state Supreme Court candidates than for presidential candidates last year.

“For years, Gov. Cooper and his allies have stoked fears of voter disenfranchisement – yet when he had the opportunity to actually increase voter involvement, he rejected a measure that the data suggests would do just that,” Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, said in a statement. “I’m pleased the General Assembly corrected the governor’s misstep and this bill is now law.”

It was the Democratic governor’s first veto. Cooper says judges should be elected based on experience and ability, not political party.

“Injecting partisan politics into our courts is wrong and harmful to our state,” Cooper’s press secretary, Ford Porter, said in a statement, adding that legislative Republicans are advancing “a divisive political agenda.”

Bob Hall, executive director of the voting rights group Democracy N.C., said the new law would require judges to “pass through partisan primaries where the most devoted partisans show up to screen which candidate advances to the general election ballot.”

Tom Lock, a Superior Court judge in Johnston County, echoed concerns about what the law means for unaffiliated judicial candidates, and said he did not think adding a partisan label next to a candidate’s name would be as informative to voters as legislators contended.

“I just don’t think that one piece of information says doodily squat about the judge or about their philosophy,” said Lock, an unaffiliated judge who has five years left in his eight-year term.

Lock said some of the judges he knows who are registered Democrats are more conservative than judges he knows who are registered as Republicans.

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO

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