News: CJ Exclusives

Bill Would Restore Partisan Labels to Judicial Races

Critics say an appointment-retention system would be better

Candidates running for judicial office in North Carolina would have their party affiliation listed on the ballot for the first time in a decade under legislation pending in the General Assembly.

Senate Bill 47, Restore Partisan Judicial Elections, would return partisan identifiers to races for District Court, Superior Court, Appellate Court, and the state Supreme Court beginning in 2012. The legislation would add a splash of political flavor to races that officially have been nonpartisan since 2002.

Right now, voters have limited options for learning about judicial candidates’ approach to the law. Sponsors of the bill say that a return to party labels would go a long way toward solving that problem.

“People still believe that partisan labels mean something,” said Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, the chief sponsor of S.B. 47. “This gives voters a little something to go off. Does it tell them everything? No. But it tells them more than they know now.”

The bill is more likely to gain traction this year due to Republican majorities in the House and Senate. Democrats largely led the effort in 2001 and 2002 to nix party labels from judicial races. Political experts say that Republicans running for judicial office typically benefit more than Democrats from party identifiers.

Critics say that both election methods — partisan and nonpartisan — have their flaws.

“Partisan judicial elections are obviously problematic,” said Gene Nichol, a law professor and director of the University of North Carolina’s Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity. “Nonpartisan races are plagued by the reality that such a huge percentage of voters have no idea who they are voting for — hardly a wise methodology.”

Former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr said he was comfortable with a return to partisan elections, but that an appointment-retention system — where the governor appoints judges and justices, who then face a retention election at a later date — would be ideal.

“That still allows the public to get rid of a judge that needs to be gotten rid of, but doesn’t put the electoral and political stresses on the judges or the candidates as much as the current system,” said Orr, who’s now executive director of the North Carolina Center for Constitutional Law .

Legislation to create an appointment-retention system has been introduced in past legislative sessions, only to die in committee.

Tillman said that other judicial-election reforms need to be made — such as addressing the public financing of judicial campaigns — but he didn’t want to snarl up S.B. 47 with additional changes.

“I want a straight up or down [on] partisan elections or not,” he said.

David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.