They’ve attacked the Executive Branch by stripping the Governor’s powers. They’ve attacked the Legislative Branch by unconstitutional gerrymandering and unconscionable new bills passed, and now the NCGOP has come for the Judicial Branch.

What’s Been Going On?

Rep. Joe John, a former judge himself, has compiled a good list of what’s been happening to erode the powers of the judicial branch of government. But a lot has happened more recently since he put this list together:

  • The House passed H717 to gerrymander the judicial districts, and we expect to see the Senate vote on it in January.
  • In addition, the Senate overrode the Governor’s veto on S656 this week, which cancels judicial primary elections and opens the door for a multitude of candidates to run on a long and confusing ballot.
  • And just yesterday, GOP Senator Rabon filed a Constitutional Amendment, S698, to reduce the term of ALL Judges in NC to 2 years (down from 8 for Supreme, Superior and Appeals Ct. Judges – District Judges will go from 4 to 2 years). All existing terms would now expire in 2018 regardless, so every judge would be up for election next year, with no primaries to thin out the ballot. And a winner will be declared with just 30% of the vote now, instead of 40%. Even Conservative outlets are appalled at this! 

It is likely there will be an attempt to eliminate judicial elections altogether and move to allow the NCGA to appoint their own judges. They have already passed H240 and H241 to do just this in certain cases (see Rep. John’s list above).

Rep. John provided some further context to the shenanigans: “Because legislators have so often grossly overreached, and impartial judges have properly stepped in, ‘war’ on a constitutionally mandated separate, independent, co-equal branch of government, the judiciary, has been declared. This latest proposal is but the most recent in a long line of bills this session seeking to bring the judicial branch of government to heel.”

State Senator Floyd McKissick adds his thoughts as to why the changes are so dangerous: “The changes which are being proposed have far-reaching implications that would substantially impact our judiciary. For example, while many people may offer themselves as candidates in the upcoming election since there will not be a judicial primary, it is difficult to envision that many persons would seek to serve as a judge for only a 2-year term. There are also many advantages in having an experienced judge serve on the bench. Judges acquire a great deal of expertise in learning and applying the law in a broad variety of subject areas over a 4-year or 8-year term. One can only anticipate that the knowledge and expertise that judges acquire could be diminished if our judges are swept in and out of office every 2 years. In addition, the number of persons willing to serve as judges, as opposed to practicing law for private clients, would be substantially reduced considering the compensation paid to many of our judges. It is also important to remember that the Republican Majority repealed public financing laws relating to those serving as judges on the Court of Appeals and on the State Supreme Court in 2013. Therefore judges on our Court of Appeals and State Supreme Court would be constantly driven to raise money to run statewide campaigns every 2 years just to remain in office.”

Senator Jeff Jackson goes a step further by connecting the dots on how the NCGOP is dismantling the independence of the judiciary: “Heads up: The NC Senate GOP just filed a constitutional amendment to reduce all terms for judges and justices to two years. The idea is to further politicize the judiciary and make it less of an independent branch of government.

This follows yesterday’s veto override that just cancelled all the judicial primaries next year… which followed making our judicial races partisan… which followed eliminating three seats on our Court of Appeals to keep Gov. Cooper from making the appointments… which followed eliminating public financing for judicial races…

And this is while they’re considering a bill that would gerrymander all our district and superior court districts and considering an effort to abandon judicial elections entirely and move to legislative selection of judges.

I hope you’re seeing this. A net is slowly being drawn around our judicial branch.”

What Can You Do?

  1. Email your state reps to tell them to stand up to power and stop the attack on the judiciary.
  2. Share what is happening outside of NC and encourage lots of national publicity. Former Attorney General Eric Holder has called North Carolina “ground zero” in the attack on voting rights, so what happens here matters across the nation.
  3. Write to your local papers.
  4. Reach far and wide through the business community in NC. The bigger the company the better, but also to groups of small business owners. Enlist their help in approaching the NCGA with the reasoning that if they don’t feel comfortable defending their property rights in a fair and independent court then they will not feel comfortable doing business here in NC since it jeopardizes their property. This is key, as we saw with HB2.
  5. Volunteer for a canvass in your precinct to talk about these issues with your neighbors (ask your precinct chair to contact their district coordinator or StrongerNC for help getting started) Spread the word! Lots of voter education will be important to let people know that voting in the upcoming elections is critical.
  6. Donate to Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Common Cause, DemocracyNC, NAACP and/or the NC Democratic Party. All of these groups are actively working to protect the constitutionally guaranteed separation of power for North Carolina Judges, and #FairElections.
  7. Share this graphic on social media to help spread the word.

The more visibility we can give this issue, the better. Sometimes public outcry and waves of bad publicity can successfully pull back the more outrageous stunts by the NCGOP. Last December, when rumors circulated about tampering with the number of judges on the state Supreme Court, public outrage tabled that idea. Even when direct actions aren’t as successful, raising visibility can help it become a campaign issue. Finally, the more we can add to the legislative record on issues like this, the more it helps during legal recourses that come later. Raising your voice does make a difference!

 

Additional Resources:

Recent Legislative Threats to NC Judicial Independence  A detailed list of 15 bills from Rep Joe John

Public Education Handouts from the National Assoc. Of Women Judges:

Courts Are Not For Sale – Campaign Cash Undermines Confidence

Politics and Special Interests

Defending Justice – Protecting Citizens

The Rule of Law Provides Fairness and Certainty Businesses Rely On

How to Judge a Judicial Candidate

Palm Card Handout

Judicial BINGO Game

Also from the NAWJ: “This handbook is designed to assist volunteer educators in communicating with the public and press about the importance of protecting our courts from special interest pressures and the critical role informed voters play in this process”:

The Informed Voters Project – A Messaging Guide

…North Carolina is leading the country in what has become a nationwide attempt to dismantle the last line of defense against state lawmakers’ often unconstitutional and unconscionable laws.” NC Policy Watch 5/17/17

Former GOP Supreme Court Justice: 2 Year Term Amendment Continued Effort to “Intimidate Judiciary” NC Policy Watch 10/17/17

The Brennan Center for Justice – Fair Courts

NC Voters for Clean Elections