How Will Judges be Seated?: The NCGA and Judicial Elections
The North Carolina General Assembly is reevaluating how individuals get a seat at the state judiciary bench. The debate is whether judges should be appointed by legislators or continue to be elected by voters. The Republican leader of the Senate, Phil Berger, has summoned a committee of fifteen fellow General Assembly members to discuss options.
During the January 3rd meeting, the committee considered four models of nominating and selecting state judges. The first model follows the federal system where the governor appoints, congress approves and voters confirm. The second model employs a judicial nominating commission, a diverse collection of qualified public servants. The third model mirrors South Carolina’s and Virginia’s current system where the general assembly nominates state judges. Attorneys prefer the fourth and final model, which operates as an independent merit selection commission, a balanced bottom-up method.
There are two main reasons for changing the way judges assume their positions. Often, voters aren’t as informed when electing judges because they pay more attention to other elected positions. Secondly, campaigns contradict the standard that judges are intended to be impartial and nonpartisan -- party labels are an impediment to an effective judiciary.
The favorable models possesses thorough layers, steps, and checks. In deciding on options, are the decision-makers acknowledging only their party’s agenda or are they pursuing a system that will endure beyond the present partisanship? The Democrats are leaning towards governor and court influence in seating judges. The Republicans are prioritizing consolidating judiciary power, aiming to keep it away from branches controlled by Democrats.
The vanguard of the reviving judiciary system committee identifies his convictions in this effort: “After 60 years of haphazard and sometimes contradictory changes to our judicial system, I hope our state can have a thoughtful dialogue on how to modernize, reform and strengthen it in the coming months,” stated Phil Berger. “The judiciary touches every North Carolinian, so the conversation needs to include Republicans and Democrats, judges, legislators, district attorneys, clerks of court, executive branch officials, men and women of all races, and, yes, even lawyers.”
“I think the general feeling is that politics is something to be avoided and we want judges outside of politics and that elections breed the kind of politics we’re trying to avoid” reflects Governor Cooper. “Obviously the counter argument to that is that democracy is a good thing and some folks have done studies to say that judges that are elected actually perform a little bit better than those who are not.” In weighing the models, it is important take into account the value in involving experienced input while also treasuring the democratic value in popular participation.
Recently-retired Judge Stephens stresses “the importance of a fiercely independent judiciary.” In the same vein, Chief Justice Martin adds the difference in the legislative branch’s function: “Judges are accountable, first and foremost, to the federal and state constitutions and to the law. They apply the law uniformly, and equal justice under law is the ultimate goal of any court system.”
This debate is a pressing and relevant one because there are many upcoming bills and proposed constitutional amendments. We need to protect the future of our state by carefully considering the weight of the judiciary position and the serious selection process. The model chosen for deciding who sits on the bench has a chain reaction to numerous other decisions.