Judicial Election Takes Bad Turn
As we've said before in this space, North Carolina should not be electing judges. For a good reason why, consider the North Carolina Judicial Coalition.
Sounds almost like the name of a governmental agency, doesn't it? Indeed, that would be a good name for what our state ought to have - some kind of nonpartisan body that would provide a list of worthy candidates from which the governor would appoint judges, who might be required to stand for periodic up-or-down votes by the people. That would be a variation on the so-called "Missouri Plan," which has come to stand as a model in such matters.
Far from being an impartial body, though, the North Carolina Judicial Commission is a Republican-oriented political organization. It is run by Tom Fetzer, a former Raleigh mayor who has also served as chairman of the N.C. GOP. And it has only one purpose: to help state Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby keep his job.
'Advocacy' on Which Issues?
Newby is the only justice on the seven-member court up for re-election. Opposing him is Appeals Court Judge Sam J. Ervin IV. Now, North Carolina supposedly has made great strides toward a nonpartisan judiciary. But everyone familiar with the situation knows that Newby is a Republican, as are three others. Ervin, grandson of the U.S. senator of Watergate fame, is a Democrat. His election would swing the majority the other way.
The North Carolina Judicial Coalition has made clear its intention to stump for Newby - and to do so through "issue advocacy." Why should that be cause for concern among all thinking North Carolinians, of whatever political stripe? For several reasons. Here is a primary one:
Of all the attributes we look for in a judge - or a judicial candidate - surely impartiality leads the list. That means a judge must approach each case that comes before him in objective fashion. He must make his decisions on the legal points involved and not on partisan considerations or on the basis of his personal position on "issues." That's the whole idea behind the move toward that hard-to-achieve ideal of a "nonpartisan" judiciary.
A Worrisome Trend
Given that background, one can only view with alarm the advent of a powerful new, partisan body openly dedicated to getting a candidate elected to the Supreme Court through "issue advocacy."
What might those issues be? Gun control, perhaps? Abortion? Immigration policy? Health care? It is hard to imagine any greater electoral mischief than that created by going around promising - or implying - that a particular judicial candidate can be depended on to take such-and-such a position on such-and-such issues.
This development comes against a backdrop of the state's public funding program. Both Newby and Ervin have chosen to participate this year. That means each will be limited to $240,000 in state funding, which could easily be dwarfed by a special-interest group throwing its money around.
All this becomes immeasurably more worrisome, of course, in this post-Citizens United world, in which heavily partisan super-PACS are free to spend unlimited amounts to get the candidates of their preference elected - with no accountability as to who is buying what.
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