News: CJ Exclusives

UPDATE: House passes bill adding partisan labels to judicial candidates

House Bill 100 may be reconciled with Senate Bill 94, which would make all elections partisan, including local races

(UPDATED, 4:05 p.m. Wednesday. The House passed the bill, 65-51. After the vote, Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, issued a statement including the following:

“North Carolina already identifies party affiliation in other judicial elections, so it is not a new approach to provide local voters this information.  This informed elections process of providing party identification is superior to inherently political appointments favored by interest groups seeking to influence judicial selection.”)

Debate tactics in legislative committees are plentiful, and often unpredictable. On Tuesday, a Democrat tried to convince Republicans that passing an election reform bill they’re sponsoring would result in losing all six GOP-held District Court seats in Wake County.

“If this bill passes none of those six will be there in four years. The ones that are up in 2018 will lose, and the ones in 2020 will lose because they have an ‘R’ beside their name in a county that [Democratic] Gov. Cooper carried by 116,000 votes,” Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, said during debate over House Bill 100 in the Elections and Ethics Law Committee.

The bill, sponsored by Republicans Justin Burr, R-Stanly, Jason Saine, R-Lincoln, Dana Bumgardner, R-Gaston, and Cody Henson, R-Transylvania, would restore the practice of identifying candidates for District and Superior courts by their political party affiliation. They now are nonpartisan races.

“If somebody knows that they’re going to get 51 percent of the vote by having a ‘D’ by their name some new lawyer right out of law school is going to file in the next election against one of these well-regarded judges because they know they can win based on party label,” Jackson said.

The bill might help elect Republicans in some areas, but “it’s going to hurt your party” in Wake County, he said.

Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, said Jackson’s intended opposition “inadvertently made the case for the bill,” which was passed out of committee. It now moves to a floor vote before being sent to the Senate, where a more expansive measure, Senate Bill 94, would make all elections partisan, including at the county and city levels.

“Rep. Jackson just said voters will reject those good judges for partisan judges, and that’s up to the voters how they use that information” of party labels, regardless how lawmakers feel about voter choices, Blust said. “If judges are getting elected simply because the public doesn’t have the [political affiliation] information they care about on them, isn’t that the reason for the bill?”

Partisan races will encourage political parties to take a more active interest in recruiting the most qualified candidates, which should prevent an inexperienced law school graduate from moving immediately to the bench, Blust said.

Burr said efforts were made in the late 1990s and early 2000s “to hide the political affiliation of judicial candidates [and] this has caused confusion, and allowed judicial candidates to win really for no reason other than their placement on the ballot or a catchy name.”

By labeling the party affiliation for all judicial races, “we will provide the voters with at least a general idea of each judicial candidate’s judicial philosophy, and certainly help them be better informed,” Burr said.

Saine, Bumgardner, and Henson all argued that the most frequently asked questions at the polls is about party affiliations of judges, and which judicial candidates to vote for. They said volunteers hand out literature identifying a judicial candidate’s political registration, and political parties endorse candidates, so to believe those races are nonpartisan is a stretch.

Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, asked whether the bill sponsors considered restoring funding to continue distribution of a state-generated judicial candidate voter guide.

Burr responded that she was welcome to introduce an amendment. The intent of this bill, he said, is to give voters a vital bit of information at the time a ballot is cast, not leading up to the election.

Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, said he agreed with the premise of the bill that the public “does not have adequate information when they go in a voting booth to make a good decision on who to vote for in a judicial race.” He agreed political parties are at the polls identifying candidates by partisan affiliation.

But Democrats and Republicans differ on a solution.

With more than a quarter of state voters registered unaffiliated, and approaching one-third, they probably are “less likely to want to know the partisan affiliation of judges,” Martin speculated.

Information more relevant than political party registration would include whether a judge went to law school, which one, how many years they’ve practiced law, and other areas that speak to judicial qualification, Martin said.

Neither political party wants partisan, activist judges on the bench, Martin said.

“So if the only information you’re giving voters is partisan affiliation, you are creating a system that will almost guarantee you that you get more judicial activists, so I oppose this bill,” he said.

Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, worried partisan races would trigger greater campaign contributions for judges.

“You’re going to have the taint of being bought. You’re going to have the taint of ideology,” Michaux said. A better recourse to seating fair, impartial judges might be merit selection, appointments, or some other process, he said.

Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, said Democrats’ fears are overblown.

“Somebody declaring their affiliation of political party doesn’t mean they’re a stubborn ideologue who can’t be impartial or objective in their decisions,” Warren said. He opposes withholding the information from voters.

And while he agreed with Martin, Michaux, and Fisher that voter education is a worthy notion, he said that adding a party label to judge candidates on the ballot serves a vital purpose, as a form of shorthand for voters who don’t have the time to research candidates’ positions fully.

Kim Crouch, director of governmental affairs for the North Carolina Bar Association, said it opposes H.B. 100 “because in general we oppose the election of judges. We believe that some sort of selection or appointment system is in fact the better way to go in order to get qualified, impartial judges to serve on our bench in North Carolina.”