North Carolina State Rep. John Blust, an attorney and a veteran of the General Assembly, did something extraordinary last week. He questioned the push by his fellow Republicans to have lawmakers take over the governor’s role of appointing judges to vacant District Court seats as well as special judges.
The questioning was remarkable not because Blust’s concern is well founded, which it emphatically is, but because he spoke up as part of a caucus that has followed the raw partisanship of its Republican leaders even when many members have had doubts. Blust, who has served nine terms in the state House and one term in the state Senate, may have been emboldened by the fact that he is leaving the legislature after this term.
At end of a legislative meeting Friday on the proposal to shift the appointive power, Blust asked: “Why are we competent to make this kind of decision on appointing judges? Why do we want to take on one more thing that may not be an area we have expertise when we claim we have limited time and we can’t get to so many important subjects because of that limited time?”
It was as if a sheep had roared.
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Blust’s candid question was aimed at Rep. Justin Burr, a Stanly County Republican who has resurrected a House proposal to change how some judicial vacancies are filled. Under the plan, which has not yet gotten Senate approval, the legislature would fill vacancies on the district court and for special judges.
Burr’s proposal is the latest of several moves to strip powers from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper since he ousted Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in 2016. And it’s also the latest bit of mischief Burr has applied to the judiciary. He’s also backing a plan to redraw District Court election districts, a move that would extend to the judiciary the Republicans’ severe partisan gerrymandering of lawmakers’ districts.
Burr tried to portray this power grab as a reform that would increase transparency. He said, “Currently, many of these vacancies are filled in secret behind the iron fence of the governor’s mansion with no involvement from the public whatsoever, and I have had a problem with that for years.”
Democrats objected that replacing the governor’s discretion with a vote by the General Assembly wouldn’t add transparency. It would simply transfer power from one individual to several legislative leaders who would be even more prone to weighing politics over qualifications.
Such Democratic objections rarely register with the Republican leadership. But this time there also was the Republican legislative veteran, speaking truth to arrogance.
Blust noted that this change wouldn’t be about bringing the collective wisdom of the people’s elected representatives to bear on judicial appointments. It would be about having legislative leaders who represent a small fraction of voters name judges. He said, “a few people” in the General Assembly “hold most of the cards.” The governor, he noted, is elected statewide and is more representative of the people’s will. Again he asked: “Why are we competent to make this kind of decision?”
Legislators, especially ones who blindly follow their leadership, are a poor choice for naming judges. The current process for filling vacancies, while not free of politics, is far superior. It calls for the local bar to recommend three candidates to the governor for a vacancy. Governors have typically chosen from that group.
Meanwhile, we have a question for the questioner: Rep. Blust, won’t you consider staying in the legislature?
Barnett: 919-829-4512, email@example.com