The state Senate chamber swelled Tuesday with emotional debates about the state Constitution and the Supreme Court, but it was hard to tell whether the orations added up to legislative drama or political farce.
For now, let’s go with farce.
The lawmakers were gathered in a hastily called one-day special session because the General Assembly’s Republican majority wants to control the captions that will describe six constitutional amendments on the Nov. 6 ballot. The captions are supposed to be written by a three-member commission but with two Democrats on the commission, Republicans worried that captions might end up telling voters too much. The majority voted instead to have the captions say only “Constitutional Amendment.”
That crisis solved, the Senate took up the convoluted matter of whether a candidate for the state Supreme Court should be allowed to appear on the ballot as a Republican if he switched parties less than 90 days before filing as a candidate. The 90-day rule applies to most elections, but it was removed from judicial races as part of the Republicans’ recent move to end judicial primaries.
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Ending judicial primaries was expected to improve the re-election chances of Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jackson, a Republican. The idea was that Jackson would run as the lone Republican, but two or more Democrats might run, thus splitting the Democratic vote.
Instead, the opposite happened. Chris Anglin, a Raleigh attorney, switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican shortly before filing as a candidate for Jackson’s seat. That meant Anglin, with virtually no chance of winning, could siphon off Republican votes to the advantage of the Democrats’ lone Supreme Court candidate, Durham civil rights attorney Anita Earls.
Republicans cried foul, but Anglin’s gambit is only a consequence of their ongoing attempts to politicize the courts by manipulating judicial elections. But when you have veto-proof majorities in both chambers, as the Republicans do, it’s easy to dodge consequences. Just pass another law to fix a problem that your previous legislation created. And so they did. In a sequence that’s now familiar, a bill emerged without notice to reimpose the 90-day rule on judicial candidates, but really on just one candidate. Call it the “strip the R from Chris Anglin bill.”
Republican Sen. Jerry Tillman, a Republican, implied during the bill’s debate that changing the rules after the fact was justified by the frightening prospect of Earls gaining a seat on the state Supreme Court. “She’s left of Hubert Humphrey,” he said.
Democrats concede that Anglin gamed the system, but argue that he did what the law allowed and it’s illegal to impose a law on him after the fact. Republicans said Anglin exploited a gap in the law and it was OK to close the gap. Apparently what’s fair is determined by what Republicans want. Republican Sen. Dan Bishop, a chief sponsor of the notoriously unfair House Bill 2 that legalized prejudice against transgender people, rose to say: “Justice and fair play is in the eye of the beholder.”
Sen. Milton “Toby” Fitch, a Democrat and a retired Superior Court judge, tried to impose moral censure on the Republicans’ move to escape the result of their own maneuver. He quoted Proverbs 26:27: “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it; if someone rolls a stone, it will roll back on them.”
And the stone rolled over Anglin’s “R” likely will roll back on the Republicans. A court may well reject the change as being passed illegally after the fact and illegally directed at one person. If so, the law will join more that a dozen passed by the Republican-led legislature that have been ruled unconstitutional. That record is why there’s such a strong Republican interest in changing the courts.
Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue delivered an appropriate conclusion to the sudden session: “If this is what we’re doing in this session, it’s a waste of time, it’s a waste of money and it does nothing to improve the quality of life for our children and our constituents.”
That epitaph fits the end of most days in this legislature where hyper-partisanship drives the people’s business, mostly in circles and sometimes into a pit.