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Lawmakers trampling democracy with judge-term shortening

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By Chris Fitzsimon
NC Policy Watch

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The folks running the General Assembly reached a new low this week in their efforts to dismantle our democracy — and that is no small feat given their actions in the last few years.

Senate Rules Chair Bill Rabon filed legislation calling for a constitutional amendment to shorten the terms of all judges in the state to two years and end every current judge’s term at the end of 2018. They would all have to run for reelection this fall and every two years after that.

That would literally turn judges into partisan politicians spending as much time much raising money and campaigning as they do hearing cases. There are currently 403 judges serving, when you add up district court, superior court, the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.

The idea is absurd on its face and makes a mockery of the judicial branch of government. District Court judges currently serve four-year terms. Every other judge and justice serve terms of eight years, the idea being that they will be less affected by the shifting political winds.

Rabon’s plan to demean the courts would set North Carolina apart from the rest of the nation. No other state has two-year terms for their supreme court.

Former Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr, a prominent Republican, called the proposal an effort to intimidate the judiciary and said it sends a message that is fundamentally repugnant.

Even more telling was the defense of the idea from prominent court-dismantler and power-grabber House Rules Chair David Lewis, who told a reporter that the thought behind the amendment “would be if you’re going to act like a legislator, perhaps you should run like one.”

Lewis and his colleagues in the legislative leadership have expressed that sentiment before, as many of their most controversial attempts to grab more power have been struck down by the courts.

Putting aside the startling dismissal of the role of the judicial branch of government, Lewis’ inane statement doesn’t even make sense in the context in which he offered it.

Many of their losses have not been in state court — where they have had mixed results — but in the federal system where they have no way to punish the judges who disagree with them on redistricting and voting rights and other issues.

Rabon’s bill is not a wild proposal filed by a lawmaker who can be easily ignored. As Senate Rules chair, he is a key player on the Senate leadership team and did not come up with this idea on his own. This is the leadership’s idea.

Some legislative observers see the plan as an open threat to court officials to force them to cooperate with a Senate plan to shift to a merit selection plan for judges with legislative leaders making the appointments.

Reportedly, such a plan is in the works but no details have been released. The public will be the last to know.

It also comes on the heels of the House redrawing the districts for judicial elections to elect more Republican judges. The Senate has yet to consider that plan.

And all this comes as the General Assembly continues to attack Democratic political officeholders elected statewide by the voters simply because they are Democrats.

Lawmakers slashed the budget of Attorney General Josh Stein’s office this summer with no real explanation, making it harder for him to protect the public, and then in a special session put more restrictions on how he could respond to the cuts.

This year’s budget cut funding for the office of Gov. Roy Cooper too and even more disturbingly refused Cooper’s request for additional funding for the Department of Environmental Quality to address the GenX water pollution crisis in southeastern North Carolina.

Lawmakers instead gave money to a local utility and UNC-Wilmington. They are refusing to adequately fund the agency that protects the public health because it is part of a Democratic Administration.

Politics are more important than people in Raleigh these days.

And now they are literally considering demolishing the state’s judicial system because they are unhappy with recent rulings and worried about Democratic judges serving on the courts.

Repugnant does not begin to adequately describe it.

Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of NC Policy Watch.

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