FLORENCE GILKESON: 'Nonpartisan' Judicial Races Still Political
Judicial offices are now nonpartisan in North Carolina. That covers everything from state Supreme Court to District Court.
But you wouldn't know it based on the behavior of political activists and candidates.
In fact, you might almost call this nonpartisanship business the best-kept secret in the state.
Groups associated with political parties, such as the Republican Men's Club and the Democratic Women, invite judicial candidates as guest speakers. You can bet on it that the speaker at a GOP meeting is a Republican and the speaker at a Democratic event is a Democrat.
A news release from a District Court candidate identifies the candidate as a Republican candidate for judge. Both parties stage rallies that name judicial candidates among those invited to participate, and you can bet once again that those candidates are affiliated with the sponsoring party.
Not too long ago, a friend asked me for guidance in identifying the party affiliation of judicial candidates.
It's going to take a number of years for North Carolina voters of all parties to accept the fact that we no longer vote on a partisan basis for judgeships. I guess the old way is too deeply ingrained in our being.
The concept is a good one, and of course the public should be comfortable with a judiciary that is fair and open-minded.
For too long, it was an accepted fact that a judge could look at a defendant, an attorney or a juror and make a decision based on race. I'm not saying that the judiciary, as a whole, was discriminatory in administration of justice, but I'm sure discrimination did occur for many years. But you can't look at another individual and automatically tell whether he is a Democrat or a Republican. Too bad.
People want an honest judiciary, someone fair and reasonable and with minimum connection with special interests. To hear many folks talk, what they don't want is "activist" judges. At least, that's what many candidates want us to believe.
But defining an activist judge is about as difficult as defining pornography to a diversified population.
People stung by poorly funded schools in some counties probably look with favor on the ruling by Superior Court Judge Manning. Others call Manning a meddling activist because of his ruling that the state has neglected its financial responsibility to guarantee all young people a good education in North Carolina.
Without activist judges, we might still have racial discrimination in our schools and at the polling booth. And those activist judges have come from both parties.
Then there is Eastern District U.S. Judge Terrence Boyle, whose name is eternally before the president for appointment to federal appellate court. I don't know his political affiliation but suspect he is a Republican, if for no other reason than the fact that Democrats appear to be the principal opponents to his appointment.
However, Judge Boyle has ruled against the U.S. Navy in its efforts to take over a huge tract of land in northeastern North Carolina for use as an outlying landing field. This issue is far from settled, but so far Boyle has not ruled automatically in favor of every action the Navy has taken. It appears, in fact, that he has taken a reasoned approach to the issue from the standpoint of law.
But here, I must admit to personal prejudice that has nothing to do with political parties or the law. It is strictly personal. I am a native of northeastern North Carolina, and although I have lived in the south-central part of the state for more than 50 years, my heart remains with the homeplace.
The land eyed by the Navy is rich and is farmed by families who have held that land in trust for centuries. It is adjacent to a 110,000-acre wildlife sanctuary that is home to migrating birds. I've always been on the side of farm families and on the side of birds.
So I think Boyle made the right decision.
But then, what do I know about law? I think he's a good judge because I agree with his rulings. When he starts ruling for the Navy, I may change my mind.
A former chief justice of the state Supreme Court once said there would be no activist judges if Congress and legislatures would do their jobs more efficiently. The answer to that charge is that with a little patience, lawmakers will eventually work their way through the intricacies of controversial issues and will pass laws correcting inequities -- all without riots in the streets and calls for impeachment.
No doubt that is true, but the legislative process seems awfully unwieldy to people impatient for correction of injustices.
The problem with judicial candidacy is the ethical roadblocks when it comes to answering questions on issues, especially issues that might come before them once they reach the bench.
We have to base our decisions on training, experience and our perception of a candidate's integrity.
Information on training and experience is easy to come by, but that integrity thing is something else. It doesn't show through the color of your skin or through your party affiliation.
Florence Gilkeson can be reached at 947-4962 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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