Is a constitutional amendment on the November ballot changing the way judicial vacancies are filled a good step toward merit selection of judges, or a reckless consolidation of power?

That was the question four political veterans sparred over in a live panel debate Tuesday evening in Salisbury.

The amendment checks, but retains, the governor’s power to fill judicial vacancies. It would require the governor to choose from at least two nominations submitted by the General Assembly from a field of nominations approved by a commission equally appointed by the state’s chief justice, legislature, and governor.

State senators Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, and Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, sat on a panel at stage right. Opposite them were Republican legislative special counsel Brent Woodcox and N.C. Democratic Party Executive Director Wayne Goodwin.

The debate was the first of a four-part Hometown Debate Series hosted by the N.C. Institute of Political Leadership.

Although the four spoke as individuals, the legislators’ views generally matched those of their party.

Democratic debaters suggested the amendment was a Republican attempt to pack the judiciary after several state laws in recent years were struck down in court.

“This whole merit selection process is completely devoid of merit,” McKissick said. “It was a political grab from the outset.”

Woodcox countered the Democrats’ view.

“Getting more people involved in the process isn’t a power grab,” Woodcox said. “If anything, it’s a power grab for the people.”

Goodwin said when South Carolina legislators took control of state judicial selection, the bench became a retirement home for fellow legislators. Goodwin pointed out that all living former North Carolina governors oppose the proposed amendment.

McKissick framed the amendment as an attack on the governor’s power.

“I think it’s absolutely unnecessary and unneeded,” McKissick said. “This is something we should be deeply concerned about. North Carolina already has one of the weakest governors in America.”

Woodcox emphasized that former N.C. governors, such as Bev Perdue, have appointed members of their staff to judgeships just before leaving office. He said one person shouldn’t have the power to appoint the state’s judges in the middle of the night.

“That’s not appropriate,” Woodcox said. “That’s not how government’s supposed to work.”

Newton called the amendment a “step forward” and said he thought it would “break up the good old boy’s club.”

Goodwin said if Republicans were so concerned after Perdue’s midnight appointments, he wondered why they didn’t address the issue when fellow Republican Pat McCrory was governor.

Newton and Woodcox suggested skeptics look beyond the state’s current partisan balance to understand how the changes could improve the judicial system.

“What we’ve got to build here is a framework that best serves North Carolina’s interests,” Newton said. “We’ve got to look long-term, and this is a very good way to strengthen our bench.”

Goodwin described the amendment as complicated and unclear.

“I’m worried voters aren’t going to know what they’re voting on,” Goodwin said. “This is three times more difficult to read than an insurance policy.” Goodwin is a former state insurance commissioner.

McKissick and Goodwin also said they’re concerned that the General Assembly hasn’t passed enabling legislation to fill in details not stated in the amendment.

“This proposal doesn’t put meat on the bones for a merit selection process,” Goodwin said.

McKissick said Republican legislators benefit from gerrymandered districts and wouldn’t be serious about promoting diversity among judges, something Democrats historically have done.

Woodcox disagreed, crediting the collective wisdom of the legislature.

“The idea that one person can take care of diversity better than 170 just doesn’t wash,” Woodcox said.

Newton hopes members of the public will join lawyers, educators, small business owners, and prospective judicial nominees in proposing candidates for the bench.

The debate was held at the Meroney Theater and recorded by Spectrum News. Spectrum senior political reporter and host Loretta Boniti moderated. The debate will appear online in its entirety and in an edited form to be broadcast this Sunday, September 30, at 11:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. on “In Focus With Loretta Boniti.”

The N.C. Institute of Political Leadership is a nonpartisan organization that since 1988 has been training leaders for public service in North Carolina.

The Salisbury debate was co-hosted by the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce. Series sponsors include North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives, the North Carolina Sheriffs Association, and the John William Pope Foundation.

The Hometown Debate Series premiered in 2016 and first featured statewide political candidates debating head-to-head. In 2017, the series featured education-issue debates between panels of state legislators and policy experts.

Three debates on proposed constitutional amendments remain in the fall 2018 series. Each will start at 7 p.m. and open to the public:

  • Voter ID, Oct. 3 at the Turnage Theatre in Washington, NC
  • Board of Elections, Oct. 9 at the Clayton Center in Clayton
  • Income tax cap, Oct. 16 at Gastonia Conference Center in Gastonia