In the years before the Revolutionary War, the British Crown used their power and money to buy the influence of judges. Our Founding Fathers had such an absolute belief that our new system of government should be free of that type of persuasion that they enshrined an independent branch to the judiciary, free of bias or favor and guarantors of fairness in all matters, regardless of a person’s stature or wealth. This brings an inherent credibility to the role of judges, protecting the rights and property of all Americans. It is because of this neutrality that judges, as a rule, stay quiet on partisan issues and don’t speak out against political manipulations. But now they need us to do so on their behalf.

The supermajority in the NC Legislature is changing the face of the judicial system as we know it. They have presented bills to re-structure the organization of the court system, reduce the number of appeals court judges, strip the Governor’s ability to appoint vacancies so they could appoint them instead, slash funding for Legal Aid access, gerrymander the judicial districts and more. Rep. Joe John has provided an excellent summary of the recent Legislative Threats here.

Back in the early 2000’s NC was a model of independent courts. No campaign contributions over $500 were permitted and all donors had to be registered NC voters. While you can’t take politics out of the judicial system you can minimize its impact. But in 2013 the campaign finance law was repealed, and the money spent on judicial campaigns increased tenfold. Judges now run under the same rules as politicians – donations can come from anywhere and there are no limits on the amount of money that can be raised. $5100 is the new individual limit, up from $500.

In 2015 the Court of Appeals races became partisan (adding party designation to the ballot), when it just so happened that Judge Linda Stephens was the only Democrat up for re-election. Then in the summer of 2016 the legislature decided to change the order in which candidates’ names would be listed on the ballot. Where Judge Stephen’s name was originally listed first, the new law says the order of listing should align with the party of the Governor. The same Rep. Justin Burr that is sponsoring the new bill to gerrymander the judicial districts also had his hand in making these completely partisan changes to the election process.

The more partisan the courts become the bigger the erosion of public confidence in the system will be. Judges already have to struggle to compete with big donor money, special interests and bullying legislators who change the law when a ruling displeases them. Now they are in danger of being shut out or double bunked in their districts and threatened with the loss of their seat if they dare to be impartial once the NCGA has control over appointments. In addition, the partisan shift adversely affects women and minority groups who generally run into more difficulty raising the kinds of cash needed to win a political campaign. So the legislators will achieve another form of suppression with this move.

Reasonable Republicans and Democrats alike should agree that maintaining the fairness and independence of our judicial branch is key to maintaining our democracy. So what can we do?

  • Educate ourselves on this issue and spread the word to as much of the public as we can through the media, Op-Ed’s, Letters to the Editors, Social Media, small group gatherings and more. PoliticaNC is available to facilitate a discussion with your group.
  • Study Rep. Joe John’s list of recent bills passed which threaten an independent judiciary.
  • Ask candidates in upcoming elections where they stand on the matter of an independent judiciary and outside influence.
  • Distribute the list of committee members recently assigned to the “Committee to Gerrymander the Judicial Districts” and blast them with calls, emails, letters and publicity demanding that they leave these districts alone and stop politicizing the court system for the sake of democracy in NC.
    • Their next committee meeting will be on September 12, 2017, at 1pm, at the NCGA Legislative Office Building, 300 N. Salisbury Street, Raleigh, NC, Room 544.

Members:

Chairman Rep. Burr

Vice Chairman Rep. Blust

Vice Chairman Rep. Davis

Vice Chairman Rep. Stevens

Members Rep. Blackwell, Rep. Brisson, Rep. Bumgardner, Rep. Floyd, Rep. Goodman, Rep. Destin Hall, Rep. Harrison, Rep. Hastings, Rep. Howard, Rep. Jackson, Rep. John, Rep. Jordan, Rep. Lewis, Rep. McNeill, Rep. Morey, Rep. B. Richardson, Rep. Rogers, Rep. Setzer, Rep. Torbett, Rep. Wray, Rep. Zachary

  • 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. Special interests can not be allowed to influence the courts. 

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

The Brennan Center for Justice – Fair Courts

NC Voters for Clean Elections