The House on Wednesday afternoon swatted down Gov. Roy Cooper’s first veto in a 74-44 override vote that would reinstate House Bill 100.
The measure restores a longstanding practice of identifying District and Superior court judicial candidates on election ballots by political party registration.
The Senate scheduled a vote on a veto override Thursday. Cooper did not immediately issue a statement.
A sharp divide on the merits of the measure that blanketed debate during passage of the bill resurfaced in Wednesday’s override vote. But this time the partisan stakes were heightened with the Cooper-initiated checks-and-balances showdown setting a possible power boundary between the branches.
State Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, a primary sponsor of H.B. 100, introduced the motion to override.
“Since the 1990s the voters have been disenfranchised” when the Democrat-controlled General Assembly began making the state’s judicial races nonpartisan elections, Burr said. “This will restore that.”
Superior Court elections were partisan until 1996, and candidates for District Court races were identified by political party until 2001.
Burr said H.B. 100 “will restore the rights of the voters to know who they’re voting for,” and which political party the candidate stands with. Party affiliation is a valuable piece of information all other races on the ballot contain, he said.
Burr drove that point home during original House debate of the bill in early March by citing the case of Meredith Shuford, a Democratic District Court judge representing Lincoln and Cleveland counties. She wrote political posts on her Facebook page about H.B. 100.
Wednesday, Burr said H.B. 100 would have a value-added effect of increasing voter participation in Superior and District court races.
In last year’s general election, 800,000 fewer votes were cast for the North Carolina Supreme Court race than for the presidential election, Burr said. Supreme Court races were nonpartisan during the election. The General Assembly passed a bill in a mid-December special session to make them partisan.
Yet 500,000 of those 800,000 people who didn’t vote in the Supreme Court race voted in the next judicial race on the ballot, the Court of Appeals, in which candidates were identified by political party.
Rep. Joe John, D-Wake, a former Court of Appeals judge, futilely implored House members to vote in a bipartisan manner to reverse course and sustain Cooper’s veto.
He said identifying judges on the ballot by party affiliation is unnecessary because the “ubiquitous Internet” allows anyone interested to get that information.
John said he ran for legislative office to bring a quarter-century of judicial experience “to bear upon” legislation affecting the courts.
“The role of a judge is distinct and separate” from partisan legislators and the executive branch, he said.
Trial judges “must be independent arbiters who follow, and apply, and enforce the law. They must not be pandering politicians expressing opinions on the issues or, God forbid, grasping after votes with promises of rulings, and decisions to come,” John said.
“I entreat you as earnestly as I am able to not rip the blindfold of fairness and impartiality from Lady Justice. Vote to sustain this veto,” he said.
Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake; Amos Quick, D-Guilford; and Bill Richardson, D-Cumberland; urged their colleagues not to override the veto.
Martin said partisan elections would create a process guaranteeing more judicial activists.
Quick warned the increasing divide in America is creating “ideologues who paint ourselves into corners. … If there’s any elected position in our state that should not have political affiliation tied to it, it is the judiciary.”
But Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, said the idea the bill leads to partisanship is inaccurate. “The partisanship is there. This bill allows the public to know what’s there when they vote, and I think that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”
Blust agreed that judges should not be partisan “in their actions, in their heart, in their mind, in the application of the law.”
But, he said, “That isn’t what is at issue. Judges are what they are. Even now under the law the way it’s been, these judges … when they’re registered to vote, they’re registered under a party,” and the legislation does not change that.
“So if they’re violating an oath, they must be violating an oath even to register at all. So, seriously, that cannot be the case,” he said.
Whether registered as Democrats or Republicans, judges already go to their local party offices soliciting partisan votes and other support by identifying themselves with those political parties, Blust said, blunting the contention by John there is no such thing as a Republican or Democratic judge.
North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes lauded the House veto.
“Democrats removed party labels from the ballot because they were losing those elections,” Hayes said. “For the health of our democracy, we need to right this wrong.”
Hayes said voters should examine the records, and positions of judicial candidates closely, “but it’s clear that voters feel more empowered to cast ballots in judicial elections when they know how the candidates are registered.”