As North Carolina lawmakers debate whether to change how judges are picked, all the Democrats on a key committee protested Wednesday by walking out of a meeting they said was unfair and not very transparent.
Judges in North Carolina currently run for office, just like officials in the legislative or executive branches. But Republican lawmakers are considering changing the system so that judges are appointed instead of elected. More than a dozen laws passed by the Republican-led legislature have been overturned in court in the last few years.
In a meeting Wednesday of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republican lawyer Scott Gaylord, who has represented the General Assembly in court, was scheduled to testify. So was a representative of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
But the committee’s chairman – Republican Sen. Dan Bishop of Charlotte – started the meeting by announcing that he wouldn’t allow Cooper’s representative to talk. Cooper had sent Don Stephens, a judge who retired last month after serving more than 30 years. He was Wake County’s top Superior Court judge when he hit the mandatory retirement age of 72.
Bishop said that since Stephens isn’t employed by Cooper’s office, he wouldn’t let him speak. Democratic Sen. Jay Chaudhuri of Raleigh told Bishop that was “a missed opportunity.” A fellow Democrat, Sen. Floyd McKissick of Durham, then asked permission to speak.
Bishop denied him several times but eventually let McKissick ask a question. McKissick asked for Stephens to be able to give his presentation. Bishop disagreed, saying he’s the committee chairman and gets to make that decision.
Then McKissick, Chaudhuri and the third Democrat on the committee, Joel Ford of Charlotte, stood up and walked out without another word. The meeting proceeded without them. At the end of the meeting the remaining Republicans introduced a new set of proposed election maps for judges and district attorneys – an issue that was not on the public agenda for the meeting.
Bishop told the committee that the new maps were drawn to address potential problems with a set of maps proposed by House Republicans that could draw lawsuits.
McKissick came back into the room after the meeting ended to get a copy of the new map proposals and said no one had informed him ahead of time that they would be presented Wednesday.
Reached later in his office, Ford said he doesn’t think Democrats abdicated their right to be heard about the future of the state’s judicial branch. He and his Democratic colleagues have participated in past committee meetings, he said, and he’s beginning to think the Republicans on the committee aren’t interested in Democrats’ input.
“If we’re not going to allow him to speak, how sincere are you, really?” Ford said. “... It would make you think they have a preconceived notion of how this is going to go.”
Later on Wednesday, Stephens provided the written speech he said he had planned to give if he had been allowed to speak. In it, he sharply criticizes the General Assembly for what he says is partisan meddling in the judicial system, purely out of retribution.
“Has the legislature simply declared the quality of the judiciary to be poor because some judges have disagreed with the legislature in their decisions?” Stephens’ notes read. “... The fact that we are having this conversation impugns the integrity of every sitting judge in North Carolina, be they Republican or Democrat.”
Cooper’s spokesman, Ford Porter, said in a press release that Stephens should’ve been allowed to speak.
“This legislature wants to take over the courts for political purposes and is threatening an independent judiciary,” Porter said. “They fear a distinguished jurist like Judge Stephens would shine a light on what they are trying to do.”
A spokeswoman for the top Senate Republican, Phil Berger, disagreed.
“The Democrats’ political stunts today show they will do anything to preserve North Carolina’s existing, unconstitutional judicial system for the benefit of their political party,” Shelly Carver said in a press release. “To date, the Senate has held more than 14 hours of hearings and debate, incorporating ideas from across the political spectrum and from many groups impacted by changes to our judicial system.”
Democrats have also criticized the committee’s openness. Ford told Bishop during the meeting he didn’t like that it was being held in a room without audio – unlike many areas in the legislature – which deprived the public of the chance to listen in remotely.
The meeting later moved to a second room, which also didn’t have audio. Bishop said he supports transparency and hopes to have more open meetings in the future, but that there weren’t any rooms available Wednesday. However, Ford said afterward that he knew of at least two rooms the committee could have used that were open and had audio streaming capabilities.
Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran