GOP lawmakers making chaos of state courts
News & Record of Greensboro
Friday, December 8, 2017
There could be one N.C. Supreme Court seat on the 2018 ballot. Or seven. Or none.
This uncertainty only 11 months before the election is astonishing. Yet it’s indicative of the chaos state legislators are pushing into the courts.
The public must pay attention.
Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jackson is running for re-election next year. One challenger, civil rights attorney Anita Earls, has announced her bid.
It’s not too early to launch a statewide campaign. But planning ahead this time is difficult because of the court-shifting agenda already begun by Republican lawmakers. They have:
* Put partisan labels on all judicial elections.
* Ended public financing for appellate judicial candidates.
* Enacted a law to shrink the Court of Appeals from 15 judges to 12.
* Eliminated primary elections in all judicial races in 2018.
* And passed through the House a measure to fragment Guilford County into five gerrymandered districts for local judges who previously have been elected countywide.
Two proposed constitutional amendments also have been introduced and could be approved when the legislature meets in January. One would abort the terms of all elected judges in December 2018, putting their seats up for election in November — for terms of only two years. The second proposes an entirely different action. It would end judicial elections, adopting an appointment system instead.
If either of these options is given a legislative go-ahead, it likely would be put on a statewide referendum in May. The wording on the ballot for such dramatic changes probably would be confusing to many people. And a May referendum could produce a low voter turnout and uncertain outcome.
The public should never be hit by so many significant changes at once — especially changes motivated by partisan politics.
Fortunately, people who seemed unaware of recent actions are starting to pay attention. A meeting sponsored by several advocacy groups recently drew 175 people to Greensboro’s Temple Emanuel. It was the second of a dozen forums planned for cities across the state.
The discussion was moderated by Elon Law professor David Levine, but only Democratic legislators attended. Republican Rep. Jon Hardister at least sent a statement, although his claim that court changes are not driven by partisan politics isn’t believable. When one of the first moves is to put party labels on court elections, it’s a partisan exercise.
At the District Court level, the introduction of gerrymandering is clearly calculated to help Republicans win judicial seats — for all that matters. Divorces, child support, traffic violations and small-dollar civil suits have nothing to do with partisan politics. But splitting the Guilford County electorate will deny voters the opportunity to choose most of the local judges they will face if they have to go to court.
The Court of Appeals was reduced in size only after Democrat Roy Cooper was elected as governor. The move prevents him from appointing replacements when judges reach the mandatory retirement age.
The worst possible change would be to cut short all judicial terms. Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and Superior Court judges are granted eight-year terms so that they aren’t constantly pushed and pulled by the politics of the moment. In the federal system, judges serve lifetime terms for that reason. That’s how important the founders believed it was to insulate them from politics. Serving only two years between elections, judges would have to raise money and campaign virtually all the time. The idea is absurd.
Why might this happen? In 2016, Democrats gained a 4-3 majority on the Supreme Court. This legislative scheme would nullify that election and throw the entire court up for grabs in 2018. The public should reject political shenanigans in the judicial branch of government.