News: Quick Takes

Retired N.C. Supreme Court chief justices join chorus opposing two amendments

The six living retired N.C. Supreme Court chief justices have signed onto a letter opposing two constitutional amendments that sit now in legal limbo.

Retired Chief Justices Rhoda Billings, James Exum, Henry Frye, Beverly Lake, Burley Mitchell, and Sarah Parker signed the “Statement of Concerned Lawyers.” Billings and Lake were elected as Republicans. The others were elected as Democrats. Twenty-nine other N.C. lawyers also added their names to the letter.

“The combined effect of these amendments would be to empower the legislative branch with control over both the executive and judicial functions,” according to the statement. “The amendments would destroy our State’s balance of power — the separation of powers — and our system of checks and balances. They would strike a severe blow to our most cherished principles of balanced government.”

At this point, neither amendment would appear on North Carolina’s election ballot. A three-judge Superior Court panel blocked them in a Tuesday, Aug. 21 order. State legislative leaders, who support the amendments, have appealed that decision to the N.C. Court of Appeals. Gov. Roy Cooper, who opposes both measures, has asked the N.C. Supreme Court to bypass the Appeals Court and resolve the matter itself.

One amendment would change the way the state fills judicial vacancies. “The amendment ‘to implement a nonpartisan merit-based system’ for judicial appointment is partisan and is not merit-based,” according to the lawyers’ letter.”The proposal in fact grants to the General Assembly the unrestricted authority to narrow the field of nominees to two, on a purely partisan basis, without regard for merit.”

The second amendment would change the makeup of the state board overseeing elections and ethics issues. It also would establish the General Assembly’s control over appointments to state boards and commissions created by law. “The ‘legislative powers’ amendment appropriates the duties and powers of the executive branch to the General Assembly,” the lawyers argue in their letter. “It eviscerates the doctrine of separation of powers and checks and balances inherent in that doctrine — two fundamental principles of the United States and North Carolina Constitutions.”

The lawyers’ letter arrives 10 days after all five living former N.C. governors announced their opposition to the same two amendments. The lawyers note their agreement with the former governors.

“All of us will vote against these two amendments,” the lawyers write. “We urge you to vote against them. And, we urge you to join us in advocating for their defeat.”

Another signee, former Supreme Court Associate Justice Phil Carlton, is listed as the primary media contact in connection with the letter. Carlton also served as a District and Appeals Court judge. Former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt appointed Carlton as the first secretary of the Department of Crime Control in 1977.

Former Asheville Mayor Larry McDevitt, a Republican, is listed as a second media contact.