Op-Ed

Cooper should veto bill that puts party labels on NC judicial races

District court judge William Lawton presides during the trial of Moral Monday protestors Charles Van Der Horst and Tye Hunter in Wake Co. District Court on Nov. 6, 2013. A GOP-backed state bill would have district and superior court elections changed from nonpartisan to partisan.
District court judge William Lawton presides during the trial of Moral Monday protestors Charles Van Der Horst and Tye Hunter in Wake Co. District Court on Nov. 6, 2013. A GOP-backed state bill would have district and superior court elections changed from nonpartisan to partisan. cseward@newsobserver.com

Despite bipartisan opposition, the General Assembly cleared House Bill 100. This legislation adds party labels to candidates for superior and district court seats.

Gov. Roy Cooper, who has been a champion of non-partisan judicial elections as a state legislator, should now take his chance to keep politics out of our courtrooms and veto this bill.

Let’s be clear about what this is, a continuation of the partisan retribution that the General Assembly began immediately after the election of Cooper to the governor’s office and Mike Morgan to the state Supreme Court. No matter what your politics, this kind of polarized political retaliation is unacceptable. Already, the General Assembly has turned our state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals elections into partisan races, in addition to restructuring the state court system to make it harder for people to get a fair hearing in front of the Supreme Court. In the process, legislators continue to put their narrow partisan interests ahead of the fairness and impartiality of our courts.

Cooper helped pass a bill in the mid-1990s that made our superior courts nonpartisan, and this system has worked well for the past two decades. Now, these nonpartisan courts are threatened by this bill, which promises to flood our judicial elections with politics, even more money, and more threats to the public’s trust in the courts as fair arbiters of the law.

Judicial elections are already drowning with money without party politics getting directly involved. Millions are being spent by wealthy special interests to elect our judges ever since the General Assembly repealed North Carolina’s judicial public financing program in 2013. This money has been shown to have a host of problems associated with it, from pressuring judges to give harsher sentences, to leading justices to side more often with big business over everyday people, to biasing the judges toward attorneys who have contributed to their campaigns. But it also leads to increasing party-based decision making in the courtroom. This bill’s plan to make all judicial elections partisan threatens to make these problems even worse.

Making our judicial institutions partisan further threatens the public’s trust in fair and impartial courts. Judges are not politicians. We want judges to decide cases based on the law and the facts — not political pressure brought on partisan special interests. The integrity of our courts depend on the public perception that the judiciary is not simply another political branch of government, but a fair and impartial decision-maker for all.

The public’s trust in our courts depends on having experienced and trusted judges. Adding partisanship can only hurt impartial jurists that don’t match the partisan makeup of their districts. Instead, we are likely to get more partisan activists posing as judges. As Democratic Leader Senator Dan Blue pointed out, “if you start slapping labels, especially in district court … is dooming very bright and good Republican judges…I think the independent judiciary is what really undergirds this entire system of ours.”

One way we could help ensure fair, impartial, and qualified justices make the bench is by re-instituting North Carolina’s system for public financing of statewide judicial elections, insulating our courts from the pressure of wealthy special interests and partisan politics while ensuring that the best candidates have a chance to get their message out without the support of big donors. In the meantime, Cooper should keep with his history of defending fair and impartial courts by vetoing the partisan judges bill.

Melissa Kromm is the director of N.C. Voters for Clean Elections.

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