RALEIGH – On the heels of a veto override that eliminated judicial primaries, legislation filed in the North Carolina Senate Tuesday would, if enacted, offer a referendum to voters in the primary elections of spring 2018 to amend the constitution to reduce all judicial terms to two years – from the N.C. Supreme Court, all the way down to district court bench seats.
Under the proposal, all current terms would officially end on December 31, 2018, and every elected judge in the state would run for re-election to a two year term in the fall elections of 2018. Currently, justices of the supreme court serve eight-year terms while district court judges serve four-year terms
The bill, Senate Bill 698, filed by Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick), is labeled Increase Voter Accountability of Judges.
The increase in judicial election frequency seems to be 180 degrees from rumors of the last couple months that Republican state lawmakers were considering introducing merit selection of judges legislation. The introduction of merit selection follow a similar path of offering the choice of amending the state constitution to voters in a referendum.
Under merit selection, judicial seats are essentially filled by a cadre of nominees put forth by a government body and then confirmed by the legislature. One argument in favor of merit selection is that it would remove the judiciary from shifting political currents and retail politicking, so they could instead focus on interpreting the law.
First in Freedom Daily covered the issue recently, highlighting that now-Governor Roy Cooper supported such a merit selection bill when he was a state senator in the 90s. Typical of Cooper, he now says he’d rather voters have their say on judicial selections. What changed? Republicans control the General Assembly with super-majorities now, whereas Democrats held control in the 90s.
There in lies the rub.
Cooper and Democrats came out swinging against the idea of merit selection, framing it as the desire of a power-hungry legislature seeking to disenfranchise voters and take over the court system. Typical scare tactics.
Now, with the filing of Senate Bill 698, political opposition to the legislative majority on Jones Street is feverishly ringing the alarm bells about Republicans wreaking havoc on the judicial system with intimidation.
Friendly fire is also incoming. Former N.C. Supreme Court Justice and Republican Bob Orr reportedly claimed the two-year election cycle was an effort to intimidate the judiciary and the idea of two-year cycles is “repugnant.”
Making matters worse, Republican chairman of the N.C. House Rules Committee reportedly said that if judges want to act like legislators – implying they are legislating from the bench – then perhaps they should run for election like legislators. State lawmakers run for election every two years.
Being that two-year election cycles for judges is quickly achieving universal disapproval, and that the filing comes on the heels of floating a totally opposite merit selection proposal, perhaps Republican state leadership is attempting to corner Democrats in an effort to expose their hypocrisy?
Which is it? Do Cooper and Democrats want voters to have more say in who sits on the bench from the county courthouse to the supreme court? Or do they want judges untethered from shifting political currents in order to more independently interpret the law?
The next moves by Republicans in the N.C. House and Senate should reveal more about their intentions with this latest bill, and how successful they may be in pushing a conservative agenda above the objections of the Democrat with the bull pulpit on Blount Street.
In the mean time, Democrats are sure to hyperventilate over…anything.