Let’s Pick Judges More Judiciously
North Carolina needs to alter radically the way it selects its judges.
Gov. Beverly Perdue took a step in the right direction last year when she appointed a Judicial Nominating Commission. That group is now touring the state soliciting advice on the qualities judicial appointees should have.
But further steps are needed to assure the independence of those who preside over our courts — and, to the greatest extent possible, to keep partisan politics and special-interest money out of the picture. How great of an extent is indeed possible in the real world is another question.
The 18-member commission — whose nearest member to Moore County is Cumberland County Sheriff Earl “Moose” Butler of Fayetteville — has the task of interviewing candidates and forwarding to Perdue the names of three people, one of whom she appoints. The appointees then have to stand for re-election when their terms end.
Big Bucks Pollute System
Adding new urgency to this entire subject is the now-infamous U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, which declared corporations to be “people” and opened the floodgates to virtually unlimited and unaccountable spending by corporations, unions and other entities to bankroll the campaigns of friendly candidates.
It’s bad enough when such out-of-control spending pollutes and distorts campaigns for other elective offices, as we’re now seeing at the presidential level. But the potential for mischief is even more horrendous where judicial races are concerned.
The worst example of that came in 2004 when Massey Energy Co., enraged over a $50 million court judgment against it, set out to buy a West Virginia Supreme Court justice who could be depended on to reverse the decision on appeal. Massey succeeded by pouring more than $3 million into the campaign of one Brent Benjamin. He won. And sure enough, he cast the deciding vote in the company’s favor.
Episodes like that should be enough to sicken anyone who believes in a fair and credible judiciary. So should systems in which judicial candidates stump for votes on the basis of promises, blatant or implied, to vote certain popular ways in future decisions on issues like abortion or gun control.
Keep It Rational, Nonpartisan
There is no perfect system for choosing judges. Each option has weaknesses as well as strengths. But perhaps the worst of all the available alternatives is the one to which some in the current N.C. General Assembly would like to see the state return: partisan elections.
Of course, accusations of partisanship can also be directed at the current procedure. GOP legislators have pointed out, for instance, that the members Perdue appointed to her commission include several prominent Democrats, of whom two are lawyers who have counseled her in the past.
Perhaps the most desirable (or least undesirable) system is some version of what used to be called the “Missouri Plan.” Under it, nonpartisan — or at least bipartisan — nominating commissions present candidates, from whom the governor appoints judges. Then, at the end of each term, there is a “retention election” in which voters decide whether to keep the judge in office. If they say “no,” the nominating process swings into action again.
Whether or not it is politically achievable, this would seem the ideal choice for North Carolina.
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