Retired and current judges from both parties participated in a town hall sponsored by NC Rep. Cynthia Ball on Jan. 30 at Meredith College. The panel included Rep. Joe John (D-Wake County and a former District Court, Court of Appeals, and Superior Court judge), former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, retired Wake County superior court Judge Don Stephens and Meredith political science professor David McLennan. The discussion was very animated but representatives of both sides felt that the changes proposed by the NCGA were NOT conducive to preserving an independent and efficient judiciary.
Some of the highlights:
Justice Stephens felt that 20 years ago, the legislature wisely made all judicial races non-partisan, and created a fund for judicial races to take out “big money”. Since 2012 the legislature has eliminated that public funding and opened the door for the national PACs and “dark money” to influence our judicial races. He felt that the single most egregious transgression by the GA was at the end of 2015 when they sought to pass Bill SA444 which would have allowed Justice Edmonds to have a “retention election” rather than have to run against challengers.
Justice Orr said he was disappointed in his fellow Republicans, who were trying to put their “thumb on the scale” to tip the courts in their favor and that their moves are “beyond the pale”.
While everyone seemed to agree that going back to partisan races was a bad idea, no one seemed to have a great idea for a better way to determine who were the best candidates. The devil, as always, is in the details.
A related article in the Raleigh News and Observer tried to see how currently active judges felt about the topic. Most feel that they can’t speak out while serving, but they were overwhelmingly against both having the legislature appoint judges and having the governor appoint them.