Let's Not Go Back to Partisan Judges
If anything, North Carolina should move away from electing judges and toward appointing them. The last thing we need is a return to partisan judicial elections.
Yet that, regrettably, is the stated goal of Republican-sponsored legislation recently introduced in the General Assembly: “Restore Partisan Judicial Elections.”
It is hard to think of a less desirable change.
The goal here, transparently, is to get more Republican judges elected. But you don’t have to be a Democrat, a Libertarian or unaffiliated to see the mischief inherent in this proposal. The more closely a judicial candidate is identified with any political party — and its platform on controversial issues sure to come up in the courts — the more grievous damage is done to the concept of independence and objectivity on the bench.
A Two-Edged Sword
Granted, partisan politics can cut both ways. For as long as anyone can remember, North Carolina has always elected its judges at all levels. And until 15 years ago, those elections were blatantly partisan, with candidates running under party labels. And most of the time, Democrats won.
Only when Republicans started doing better at the polls did the Democrats in charge of the General Assembly begin to see the light: Maybe the system needed fixing. Judicial races thus became nonpartisan, starting at the lower levels and reaching all the way up to the highest offices by 2002.
Nobody has claimed that this system is perfect. Parties still can and do make known their preferences among candidates, and in some cases the elections amount to party contests in all but name. Still, blatant partisanship has been kept to a minimum.
Appearance of Bias
Back when North Carolina was actively re-examining its method of picking judges, there was some talk of appointing them, but it got nowhere. It deserved more serious attention. After all, if having the chief executive nominate judges and the legislative branch confirm them has worked at the federal level, why shouldn’t it be good enough for the state?
One possibility that comes up from time to time is the “Missouri Plan,” so named because that state adopted it in 1940. Under that system, the governor selects judges from a list of candidates provided by a nonpartisan commission. Judges are then subject to yes-or-no “retention elections” by the public. Some variation on that would surely be better than our current procedure, though it is unlikely to get much consideration at a time when the majority party is regrettably contemplating going in the opposite direction.
Supporters have offered no convincing reason for a return to party-label candidates, except for the obvious one that it would get more GOP judges elected. That is not reason enough, no matter what your party preference.
With the Republican Party now staking itself out with such strident positions on everything from abortion to gay marriage to gun rights, the credibility of judges elected under such a banner can only suffer in the eyes of those embroiled in court cases involving the same issues. Most judges, no doubt, would continue to strive for fairness. But the appearance of a politicized bench would be impossible to avoid.
For now, we should stick with what we’ve got.
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