Mark Martin, chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, wants to give voters an opportunity to decide whether the state should continue electing judges or move to an appointment process.
In a speech to the N.C. Bar Association in Asheville on Saturday, Martin said he plans to call for the General Assembly to put a proposed state constitutional amendment on the ballot asking that question.
The call for change comes while political polarization is a dominating feature of national and state politics.
It also comes several months after a commission appointed by Martin, a Republican, delivered its comprehensive review of the North Carolina courts and a list of recommendations that included setting up a system for appointing judges.
The commission’s 15-month review included a finding that 53 percent of the public believed outcomes in the courts were “fair only some of the time or not at all.”
“Our society is experiencing rapid change, and our state’s court system and judicial officials are working hard to maintain high standards of access, fairness and impartiality,” Martin told the lawyers at the N.C. Bar Association meeting. “The judicial branch has made progress in its pursuit of justice for all, and now it’s positioned to pursue more reforms to help the court system meet 21st-century demands and expectations.”
Martin’s call for a change in how judges make it to the bench is in a year when North Carolina lawmakers have taken many steps to change the court.
The Republican-led General Assembly voted to make all judicial races partisan in North Carolina — from the district courts that handle traffic cases and misdemeanors to the Supreme Court tasked with deciding whether lower courts correctly interpreted law.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, vetoed the bill, saying judges should be elected based on experience and ability, not political party.
The Republicans at the helm of the General Assembly, who led the override of the governor’s veto, said adding political party to the ballot simply gives voters another piece of information to help them decide who makes key decisions in the judicial branch.
Judges unaffiliated with either party raised concerns about the process.
People who belong to political parties can 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 judicial office, they have to get signatures endorsing their candidacy from 2 percent of the registered voters in their district.
In 2013, when Republicans had control of both General Assembly chambers and the governor’s office, a public financing program for judicial races was abolished.
The program had provided public funding to judicial candidates who agreed to strict spending limits. While in place, the amount of money funneled into judicial campaigns from political action committees and lawyers dropped dramatically to 14 percent from 73 percent, according to campaign spending analyses.
Once that program was dissolved, campaign spending in judicial races, particularly at the state Supreme Court level, went way up, with national political organizations and PACs playing a much larger role.
Martin reminded the lawyers gathered in Asheville that talk about moving to a merit-based selection process for judges has been debated for more than 20 years.
Martin acknowledged the difficulties of setting up a system that would provide assurances of independence and fairness to those separated by the widening partisan divide.
The judiciary has been called on recently to settle power struggles between the legislative and executive branches in North Carolina since Republicans lost the governor’s race.
Martin described a process to appoint judges as one meant to ensure “good government.”
Martin said any merit selection process should have three basic components:
▪ A panel that would be tasked with evaluating judicial candidates in an objective way that steers clear of their ideological stands.
▪ The panel would include members appointed by the governor and General Assembly.
▪ A government authority with accountability to the people of North Carolina would be tasked with appointing judges, Martin said, and retention elections held periodically to ensure that North Carolina voters continue to have a role in the process.
North Carolina lawmakers attempted to change the way Supreme Court justices ran for re-election last year, but the law was overturned by a three-judge panel.
Critics of the law described it as one that was meant to help Republicans maintain a 4-3 advantage on the state’s highest court.
In November, the balance shifted to 4-3 Democrats after Democrat Mike Morgan, a former Wake County Superior Court judge, defeated Bob Edmunds, the incumbent Republican who lost re-election.
Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1