Opinion

Judicial amendment threatens the independence of our courts

Nancy Gordon is a former District Court judge from Durham.
Nancy Gordon is a former District Court judge from Durham.

The struggle between the governor and the legislature never seems to end. The conflict is built into our governmental structure as a separation of powers. Our system of government was designed to keep any one group or individual from amassing too much power.

Since deciding Marbury v. Madison in 1803, American courts have had the power to strike down laws, statutes and executive actions that violate the U.S. Constitution. That important check on the legislative and executive branches has become part of the tapestry of the rule of law in our country and here in North Carolina. It’s what we call a system of checks and balances.

But one of the six constitutional amendments on North Carolina ballots this November will turn that system on its head. That amendment would give the legislature the power to appoint judges when there is a vacancy, taking that power from the governor. That change would forever alter the balance of power by making the courts a pawn of the legislative leadership.

When I think of what qualities make a good judge, I think of integrity and the courage to be independent. I think of intellect, legal training and a commitment to fairness and justice. I do not think of partisanship, campaign donations or ideological purity.

A judge’s job begins and ends in a courtroom. Everyone should have access to the courts, have a fair and prompt opportunity for his or her grievance to be heard and then have a reasoned decision that is consistent with the law of the jurisdiction. That’s it. Judges are not lawmakers. They are not policymakers. And those who want to infuse our courts with people with one or the other political view want to know that those judges will support their actions.

I believe that a court system packed with judges beholden to any political party or ideology will prevent our judiciary from fairly weighing or redressing minority viewpoints.

Everyone who seeks a judgeship has an opportunity to be part of the conversations surrounding our court system, just as you and I do. What does it mean to incarcerate people? How can we ensure fair treatment and access to justice for everyone regardless of wealth, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or political persuasion?

Most judges are trial judges and they never even hear political cases. And the vast majority of cases heard by our appellate courts are not political — they are everyday disputes like criminal cases or contract disputes. When a citizen goes to court, they expect the judge to be fair and impartial. But we will all lose confidence in the judiciary if our benches are full of political hacks. I hope you will join me in voting against this amendment.

Nancy Gordon is a former District Court judge from Durham. She is an attorney, teaches law at N.C. Central University and served as vice president of the N.C. Bar Association. Go to stopdeceptiveamendments.com for more.

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