North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin isn’t happy with the way state judges get on the bench.
And he’d like voters to decide if they agree with him.
At his annual address to the N.C. Bar Association’s annual convention, given Saturday morning in Asheville, Martin called for a constitutional amendment changing the process for picking judges. It would replace direct elections with “merit selection,” a version of the assisted appointment process used in 34 states and the District of Columbia for all openings on the bench. (Forty-six states use the merit process for some judges, but not all.)
In his prepared remarks, the chief justice said he was concerned about the perception that some judges were not impartial or competent, and offered a remedy: End face-to-face partisan elections.
To ensure that our judges are independent and well qualified, any merit selection process should have three basic components:
• First, a panel should evaluate judicial candidates in an objective and nonideological way, and rate them as Well Qualified, Qualified, or Not Qualified. Both the governor and the General Assembly should be able to appoint members of this panel;
• Second, an appropriate governmental authority with accountability to the people of North Carolina should appoint our state’s judges;
• And third, retention elections should be held at periodic intervals to ensure that the people of North Carolina continue to have a role in the process. Let’s step away from ordinary politics and let the people determine whether our judges should be chosen through this kind of process instead of through partisan elections. Let’s give the people the chance to decide whether merit selection’s time has come.
Martin did not specify which elected government officials he’d prefer to make those selections — the governor, the General Assembly, or a combination with the governor nominating a selection and the General Assembly confirming or rejecting it.
Before the chief justice’s proposal could go into effect, the House and the Senate would have to pass legislation by two-thirds majorities in both bodies. Voters then would have to approve it in a statewide election.
North Carolina is one of seven states using partisan elections to choose state judges.
The legislature appoints all judges in two states, Virginia and South Carolina. The governors of Massachusetts and New Jersey pick all state judges. Most states have some mix of partisan elections, nonpartisan elections, merit selection, or political appointment.
The 2015 session of the General Assembly tried to bring retention elections to the Supreme Court. The law required competitive elections for Supreme Court candidates, or appointed justices running for the first time. Any justice wanting additional terms would have to win a majority vote in a retention election. Losers would resign and the governor would pick a replacement.
But a panel of trial court judges last February threw out the law, saying voters must amend the constitution to change the way judges are picked and retained. Two months later, the state Supreme Court split, 3-3, on the appeal, keeping the trial court decision in place. So Justice Bob Edmunds, a registered Republican who was planning to run last November in a retention election, instead lost in November to Judge Mike Morgan. Morgan, a registered Democrat, swung the partisan balance on the court from Republican to Democrat.
Since December, the General Assembly has passed separate bills making elections for Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and trial courts partisan contests. Gov. Roy Cooper sued to overturn Senate Bill 4, which also merged the State Board of Elections and the Ethics Commission.* The General Assembly passed a separate bill including the board merger as a state court did not take issue with the provisions dealing with partisan judicial elections. He vetoed House Bill 100, but the General Assembly overturned that veto.
Martin’s proposal would remove traditional, partisan-oriented political campaigning from judicial races.
The judicial proposal comprised only part of Martin’s remarks. He highlighted the work of the judicial-reform commission he oversaw, praised the General Assembly for implementing some of its recommendations (including raising the age for many juvenile offenders from 16 to 18), and called on more funding for the judicial branch.
*Editor’s note: This story was corrected after initial publication to include the passage of Senate Bill 68. Earlier court action took care of the dispute over partisan elections. We regret the error.