What’s going on with the court legislation in NC? We just went from zero to sixty.

In a matter of six months, the Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly went from wanting to redraw judicial districts with House Bill 717 to rewriting the part of the North Carolina Constitution that guarantees voters the right to choose their judges.

Why? The leaders of the General Assembly aren’t exactly fans of the courts.

This change could be a result of some Republicans in the General Assembly getting a little huffy that their voter ID laws, voter roll purges, and gerrymandered districts are being stopped in the courts. Leaders in the NCGA have repeatedly referred to judges who strike down the General Assembly’s laws as unconstitutional as “activist judges.” Sick burn.

Who’s to judge? Apparently the North Carolina General Assembly.

Since 1869, the North Carolina Constitution has guaranteed the right for North Carolinians to vote for all of their judges. The huffy Republicans are proposing a new way to elect judges: the “Purple Plan” (see our handy graphic here). Need a little more background on the courts? Read up on how the North Carolina court system works here.

Purple Plan? Could be closer to the Corruption Plan.

We’ve been listening in on the Judicial Reform and Redistricting Committee hearings to understand exactly how this plan would work. This plan could result in the same corruption issues that Virginia and South Carolina are experiencinggiven the amount of power the legislature and an unelected commission would have over who gets to the bench. Most of the details have not been worked out yet, but this is the general idea given at last week’s committee hearing:

  1. The Chief Justice of the NC Supreme Court chooses members of a selection commission. The Chief Justice is currently Republican Mark Martin, who would have the first go at putting together the commission.
  2. A judicial vacancy occurs, as a result of retirement, term limits, or death.
  3. Citizens nominate candidates to fill the vacancy. Citizens will have no power to actually vote for candidates, except to vote out judges in retention elections.
  4. The selection commission decides which ones they consider “qualified.” Several legislators and even judges have already indicated that they are concerned what will be considered “qualified,” and whether there will be any way to ensure that qualified actually means qualified, and not what political party they are affiliated with.
  5. The selection commission sends their top 20 (ish) picks to the legislature.
  6. The legislature gets to pick their top 3 from the commission’s list.The gerrymandered North Carolina General Assembly will choose who will be a check on their power from the list of candidates that make it through the unelected merit selection commission. Those three candidates are sent to the governor.
  7. The governor chooses one person from the list of three names provided by the legislature.
  8. Citizens can vote out judges in periodic retention elections, but they will never have the opportunity to vote for judges.

So, is voting for judges better? Not necessarily.

Just like legislators, judges have become targets for massive campaign ad spending and outside dark money from donors hoping to influence how the judges rule on the bench. A former Arkansas circuit judge pled guilty to ruling in favor of a nursing home after the owner of the nursing home contributed to the judge’s PAC. The judge reduced the damages that the nursing home had to pay after negligence led to the death of a resident. Read this account by Alabama’s first female Chief Justice to get a peek into how judges are forced to campaign.

What’s the best way to pick a judge? There are a lot of ways, but there is no perfect way.

States have come up with all sorts of combinations of judicial elections, legislative appointment, gubernatorial appointment, and merit selection to pick judges. The Brennan Center for Justice research indicates that judicial elections and merit selection can both result in excellent judges, but these systems are subject to corruption without proper safeguards. Legislative appointments have the most problems. For judicial elections, they recommend public financing to avoid dark money and outside influence. For merit selection, they recommend a nonpartisan, diverse commission that is elected or has some form of check and balance on who is appointing the commissioners. In no other state is every commissioner selected by one person.

The Purple Plan is essentially legislative appointments with an unregulated commission. We’re shocked.

Can the legislature just take away the people’s right to vote for judges?

No. Since they are changing the North Carolina Constitution, they would need North Carolinians to vote for this change on a ballot. It looks like they are shooting to add this to the May primary ballot.

Want to keep up with judicial legislation in the General Assembly?

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Want to take action?

You can contact your legislators using DemocracyNC’s action page here.

Thanks to Kill the Bill for providing all of the information in this post.