Legislators in North Carolina have ganged up against the governor for centuries. The formal powers of the N.C. governor are limited and have been since the state’s birth. Our governor was limited to one four-year term until 1977 and didn’t get the veto until 1996 — the last governor in the country to get that power.
So it’s not surprising that the Republican-controlled legislature wants to chisel power away from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. The Insider’s Colin Campbell reported that earlier this year, when Republican leaders were asked at the dawn of the legislative session if they planned to take more power from the governor, Senate leader Phil Berger laughed, “Does he still have any?” “If you have any suggestions, let us know,” said House Speaker Tim Moore.
As it turned out, Berger and Moore did have a plan to seize more power. They’ve backed a constitutional amendment, which is on the Nov. 6 ballot, that would remove the governor’s power to fill vacant judicial posts until the next election.
Instead, as the Insider’s Lauren Horsch reported, the proposed amendment would create a commission with up to nine members appointed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the governor and the legislature. The commission would evaluate anyone nominated to be a judge on some basic criteria (including whether the person is a registered voter and licensed attorney) and would make recommendations.
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At least two nominees would be forwarded to the governor to pick a replacement judge. But — surprise, surprise! — it’s not the commission that would name the finalists. That would be done by the legislature. If the governor doesn’t appoint someone within 10 days, the legislature could appoint someone. The bottom line: The proposal shifts the appointment power from the governor to the legislature and gives the legislature more control over the judicial branch.
How bad an idea is this? In this hyper-partisan era, prominent Democrats and Republicans in North Carolina have united in opposition. All five living former governors (three Democrats and two Republicans) oppose the amendment, as do all six retired state Supreme Court chief justices (four Democrats and two Republicans).
The North Carolina chapter of Americans for Prosperity, which was started by the Koch brothers and typically is a strong ally for conservative politicians, also is opposed. “The amendment is nothing more than a political power grab that would grant more authority to special interests and politicians, opening the door to partisan court packing while weakening our constitutional right to select our own judges,” said state director Chris McCoy. “That is bad for voters and bad for our courts.
“We’re strongly urging all North Carolinians to reject this backdoor effort that would lead to manipulation and cronyism in an institution that must remain fair, independent and impartial.”
As McCoy noted, the amendment could lead to court packing to shift the balance of the court. Democrats have a 4-3 majority on the N.C. Supreme Court. If that holds after the November election, Republicans could add two seats with candidates named by the legislature. Republicans have denied they have any such plan but that would be consistent with their previous actions, including cutting three seats on the N.C. Court of Appeals to reduce Gov. Cooper’s chances of making appointments to the second-highest court.
Republican legislators say the constitutional amendment is needed to take the politics out of judicial appointments. Excuse us if we —and the former governors and chief justices — are skeptical of their motives. This constitutional amendment would make any flaws in the current system worse. It should be rejected.