Since 2011, the Republican-led General Assembly has enacted transformational reforms. These include changes to our tax structure, how we pay for infrastructure, and more options for parents when choosing schools for their children. My colleagues and others have written extensively over the past seven years of the details and the benefits these reforms have had to the state’s economy, its business environment, and their positive impact on North Carolina families.
The reforms were first met with accusations of partisanship and various prediction of gloom, doom, and even the state’s complete ruin. But data confirms the reforms are working to make us a leader in good government, and states are looking to us for ways to do reform right.
I was surprised by the negative reaction when lawmakers proposed reforms to the judiciary. The General Assembly is committed to reform, even if the governor isn’t.
Superior Court elections were switched from partisan to nonpartisan in 1996, and District Court elections were changed in 2001. House Bill 100, despite a veto from the governor, was enacted during the recent long session, again making the elections partisan.
House Bill 239 reduced Court of Appeals seats from 15 to 12 and provides a right of appeal directly to the Supreme Court in some cases, bypassing the Court of Appeals. It was vetoed and overridden.
Senate Bill 656 delays candidate filings for judicial races from February to June 2018 and eliminates primaries for judicial candidates. It’s now easier for unaffiliated candidates for all races to get on the ballot. It raises the threshold for a leading candidate to avoid a primary runoff from more than 40 percent of votes cast to 30 percent. Cooper’s veto was again overridden.
Now that reforms are under way, additional ideas are being proposed and discussed, such as how district lines are drawn and resources are allocated, terms of office, and even how judges are selected.
House Bill 717, introduced in June, proposed new court districts and looked at the judiciary as a whole for the first time in 50 years. The bill has changed and been subject to hours of committee discussion, public hearings, and conferences with judges, district attorneys, and others. It passed the House Oct. 5 and sits in the Senate Rules Committee, eligible for consideration in January.
Senate Bill 698, filed Oct. 17, proposes a constitutional amendment shortening judicial terms from four or eight years to two years. The amendment would be subject to a statewide referendum and would appear on the May 2018 primary ballot. All judicial seats would be subject to election in November 2018.
Judicial reform may include changes in how judges are selected, although a related bill hasn’t been filed. This has been a subject of discussion as far back as 1776. Here are three things to keep in mind as we consider judicial reform proposals over the next several months:
- The judicial system is responsible for interpreting laws and upholding the Constitution. It’s there to serve constituents, ensure access to fair, impartial judges, and the equitable distribution of resources. It’s not there for the convenience of judges, associations, special interests and others who make their living off the courts.
- How judges are selected should rest with the people, whether by direct election — as we have now — or through an election/retention system. Politicizing the selection by appointees from the governor or the General Assembly risks undue influence from either party holding control at any given time. The political pendulum eventually swings both ways. Any changes to how we elect judges should and must be through a statewide vote on changes to the constitution.
- The U.S. Constitution guarantees our right to a fair trial. The N.C. Constitution, Section 18m declares, “All courts shall be open; every person for an injury done him in his lands, goods, person, or reputation shall have remedy by due course of law; and right and justice shall be administered without favor, denial, or delay.”
Justice is too important to be left to special interests or partisan hacks. It’s up to us. Vote for judges like your rights depend on it. Healthy skepticism, vigorous discussion and thoughtful debate are part of the reform process. But opposition for the sake of opposition or done solely for political posturing and virtue signaling is not the way to move forward.