Barry Smith

Carolina Journal News Reports

Bills Would Restore Party Labels To Judicial Races

Backers say partisan affiliation gives voters information about candidates' views

Feb. 28th, 2013
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RALEIGH – North Carolina could come full circle by 2014 in the way candidates for judicial posts are identified. Currently, judicial elections are nonpartisan. Republicans in the House and the Senate have filed bills that would restore party labels to North Carolina judicial elections — from the District Court to the Supreme Court — reversing a trend that started nearly two decades ago.

Supporters of the change say party affiliation provides information to voters who tend to have little knowledge of the philosophical leanings of judicial candidates. The measures also would end taxpayer financing of campaigns for appellate judges. Backers of the current system say survivors of partisan primaries are likely to represent the ideological extremes of each party and may not be inclined to judge legal issues fairly.

North Carolina’s judicial candidates were placed on the ballot by their political party affiliation until the late-1990s. In 1998, the state’s voters began electing Superior Court judges on a nonpartisan basis. In 2002, District Court judicial elections shifted to a nonpartisan system.

In 2002, the General Assembly completed the transition from party labels to nonpartisan judicial selection by making elections for N.C. Supreme Court justices and N.C. Court of Appeals judges elections nonpartisan, beginning with the 2004 elections. Also in 2004, the state moved to a public (or taxpayer) financing system for appellate court judges’ campaigns.

“Ninety-five percent of the people going to vote know nothing about the judges unless they know them personally,” said Rep. Frank Iler, R-Brunswick, a sponsor of the bill in the House. Iler said adding party labels would give voters more education than they’d have without the labels.

Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, doesn’t think the change is a good idea. “I don’t think going back to partisan judicial elections is a good idea because I think it’s good to have judges who don’t identify with a party,” Ross said. “What they identify with should be the rule of law and justice. We become even more politicized.”

Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, who filed the Senate bill, noted that he filed a similar bill in the Senate two years ago. It gained Senate approval, but stalled in the House. “I’m just doing it so you’ll have more information,” Tillman said.

Tillman noted that about 1 million fewer people cast ballots for the Supreme Court justice race in 2012 than cast ballots for president and governor.

“People want to know what party they are [with] where I come from,” Tillman said.

Both Tillman and Iler said the move to take party labels off the judicial races was spurred by the success Republicans were having at the ballot box.

“When this was changed, the thinking was a certain party was losing judges,” Iler said.

Former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, a Republican, said he did not support the legislation that changed the appellate judicial races to nonpartisan contests and instituted public financing.

“I thought the primary reason for the passage was not good government, but to reverse the trend of Republicans getting elected,” Orr said.

But Orr said he doesn’t think either the current nonpartisan contests or a return to partisan races is the best way to select appellate judges.

“We do need to reform the system,” Orr said. He said he prefers giving the governor the authority to appoint judges when a vacancy occurs. Then after the judge has served some period, allow for retention elections, where voters would have an up-or-down vote on the choice.

A change of that magnitude would require an amendment to the N.C. Constitution. Restoring partisan labels to judicial races can be accomplished by legislative action.

David Bohm, assistant executive director of the N.C. Bar Association, said the organization is not taking a position on the bills. However, he did say that the bar association traditionally has opposed both partisan elections and the $50 surcharge on lawyers’ licenses that help finance the appellate judicial campaigns.

Ross said she has a couple of reasons for opposing the bills. One is she thinks the primary process for selecting party nominees will lead to more ideological nominees.

“I think the primary process will not give us people who have necessarily the most balanced background,” Ross said. “We are a purple state. It would be bad, particularly in a judicial election, which isn’t a policy sort of election, to create a situation that becomes more polarized.”

Ross also said she thought the public financing of campaigns should be retained so that potential appellate judges won’t be soliciting from lawyers who may represent clients before the higher courts.

“It’s unseemly for judges to ask for money from people who are going to appeal before them,” Ross said.

Tillman said requiring candidates to raise enough money to campaign is one way to nudge them into make themselves better known to the voters.

“You need to get out and meet the people,” Tillman said.

Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.