North Carolina should go to merit selection of its judges to insulate the courts from political influence, state Chief Supreme Court Justice Mark Martin said here Saturday.
Martin told the N.C. Bar Association, the professional association for attorneys, that the General Assembly should set a referendum on a constitutional amendment that would end the current system of choosing judges in popular elections.
“Let’s step away from ordinary politics and let the people decide whether our judges should be chosen through a merit selection process rather than partisan elections,” Martin told association members at its annual meeting being held at the Omni Grove Park Inn.
Also Saturday, the association chose Asheville attorney Jacqueline Grant as its president-elect. She will become president next June.
The legislature’s Republican majority has been moving in the opposite direction from Martin’s proposal. Judges in recent years have been chosen in elections in which their party affiliations were not shown on the ballot.
But after an incumbent Republican state Supreme Court justice lost in last November’s election to a Democrat, giving Democrats a majority on the court, the legislature voted in a special session in December to put party labels on the ballot for Supreme Court and Court of Appeals seats.
The General Assembly moved in March to do the same for Superior Court and District Court judges, overriding a veto of the bill by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
That trend “is the very reason that the time is now to have this discussion and dialog,” Martin, who is a Republican, told reporters after his speech.
Society these days is “struggling with a type of divisiveness that I’ve never seen in my career,” he said.
“When it comes to the courts, we need to say, ‘Let’s keep the politics over in the executive and legislative branches and let’s get our judges focused on the constitution and the law,’ ” Martin said.
He said the state has “amazing judges” and he means “no disrespect” to those sitting on the bench today.
Rather, a change would be a safeguard against politics influencing judicial decisions in the future and would improve the public’s trust in the court system, he said.
Martin proposed that people who want to be judges should be evaluated “in an objective and non-ideological way” by a review panel that would rate them as well qualified, qualified or not qualified. Both the governor and legislature would appoint panel members.
He did not say who he believes should actually make the appointments, telling the bar association it should be “an appropriate government authority with accountability to the people of North Carolina.”
Many, but not all, states give that job to the governor. Martin said there are other ways to make the final choice of whoever sits on the bench. It’s up to the governor and the General Assembly to decide how that part of a new system would work, he said.
Once a judge is chosen, he or she should sit on the bench for a period of time and then be subject to a retention election in which they are either allowed to continue to serve or turned out of office, Martin said.
That, he said, would “ensure that the people of North Carolina continue to have a role in this process.” Some other states employ the same mechanism.
Martin proposed that retention elections for Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judges be held statewide and voters in individual judicial districts decide on District Court and Superior Court judges. The elections would be held after each term of office, which Martin said could be eight years or some other period.
Merit selection of judges has been proposed before when Democrats held sway in state government and has long had support in much of the legal community. Martin recalled lobbying legislators on the issue in 1995, when he said a bill to establish merit selection passed the state Senate but failed by four votes in the state House.
Changing the judicial selection system would require amending the state Constitution. Bills setting a referendum on changes to the Constitution must pass both chambers of the General Assembly with support from three-fifths of legislators. They do not require a gubernatorial signature to become law.