Op-Ed

Fight to keep N.C. courts independent of General Assembly politics

N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper, center right, is applauded by members of the General Assembly , the Council of State and the Judiciary as he arrives to deliver his first State of the State address in the House chamber of the Legislative Building in Raleigh, NC on March 13, 2016.
N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper, center right, is applauded by members of the General Assembly , the Council of State and the Judiciary as he arrives to deliver his first State of the State address in the House chamber of the Legislative Building in Raleigh, NC on March 13, 2016. cseward@newsobserver.com

Imagine this: You decide to challenge your speeding ticket in court, or worse – you are falsely accused of a crime – and your case comes up before a brand new judge. Unlike this judge’s predecessor, who was duly elected by a majority of voters, the judge you appear before was appointed to the position by our General Assembly majority. He owes his job to a conservative group of (mostly) white men. He owes nothing to you and your neighbors and your friends down the street, who, for their entire lives up until now had researched and voted upon their candidates for judgeships at local and state levels.

This may not be an imaginary scenario. According to Fair Courts NC and Democracy North Carolina, a quiet proposal is being passed around among Republican legislators that would eliminate North Carolina’s judicial elections altogether. If this happens, undoubtedly politicians will cherry pick judges who will rule based on political ideology and will rubber stamp a radical political agenda. When will this happen? Probably on the same day the proposal is introduced – possibly in January – giving no opportunity for hearings or informed input, which is entirely why this plan is being kept so secret.

Opponents say the plan includes setting a referendum in a May primary election, when hardly anyone votes, with the confusing language so often wordsmithed onto referendum ballots to mislead voters into giving away something they should keep – in this case, their long-held right to elect judges.

Consider what the Republican General Assembly majority has already done to crush the independence of our judiciary. House Bill 656 has already canceled primary elections for judges, which will undoubtedly result in long lists of names on general election ballots that will be utterly confusing for voters who cannot possibly research each one and thus could help get someone elected with just a tiny number of the votes cast. House Bill 717, which has been passed by the House, gerrymanders judicial boundaries, just as was done in the unconstitutional legislative maps. According to Fair Courts NC, under this plan nearly half of all African-American judges would be packed into a district with another incumbent, forcing them to run against each other or step down.

Senate Bill 698 has been introduced to cut judges’ terms to two years, a drastic slash to the eight-year terms of many judges, and a 50 percent cut to the terms of district court judges, who are currently elected every four years, not two. Even North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin, a Republican whose term is set to end in 2022, told the N.C. State Bar Association this fall that “nowhere in America do voters elect their general jurisdiction judges for two-year terms of office.” This radical change would force judges to continually raise money and campaign instead of dispensing justice. It would also force them to ponder whether a decision this way or a decision that way might influence their ability to raise the funds needed for reelection.

Fair Courts NC says this is the first state in 100 years to go from nonpartisan to partisan elections. With ever-declining trust in the judicial branch, states should be moving in the opposite direction.

Last year came the attempt to take away North Carolinians’ ability to vote in state Supreme Court elections and an attempt to “pack” the North Carolina Supreme Court with two extra judges appointed by former Gov. Pat McCrory when the 2016 election produced a Democratic majority on the state Supreme Court. And in 2013, the legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory repealed public financing for state Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals candidates, which was a system that had leveled the playing field for female and minority judicial candidates who are disadvantaged when they don’t get the same “good old boy” campaign donations that typically go to white men.

Since 2013, Republican legislators’ attacks on the North Carolina judiciary have been relentless, and they assume that North Carolinians will eventually be worn down by fight after fight after fight for our rights. We should not. I was one of about 60 people who attended Greenville’s Fair Courts Town Hall this week, one of several such events coming throughout the state this month to warn North Carolinians about the threat to our courts and our rights. They’re going to call it “merit selection.” But they really just want to control who our judges are. The only “merit” lies in continuing to fight.

Cindy Elmore is a professor at East Carolina University, where she teaches journalism.

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