Raleigh, N.C. — Gov. Roy Cooper has used his veto stamp for the first time to reject a bill that would make races for Superior Court and District Court judgeships partisan.
"North Carolina wants its judges to be fair and impartial, and partisan politics has no place on the judges' bench. We need less politics in the courtroom, not more," Cooper said in a news release.
Until the 1990s, North Carolina elected judges in partisan races just like contests for the state House or county commissioner. But lawmakers at the time, including Cooper, who was then a state senator, voted to have judges run without Republican or Democratic labels.
Boosters of the nonpartisan system say it ensures judges are insulated from political pressure. Critics say that nonpartisan races remove the little bit of information that some voters will know about a judge – whether they're Republican or Democrat – from the ballot. They also point out that political parties have always distributed slate cards at the polls playing up judges who share their political affiliation.
House Bill 100 would make judicial elections partisan races again, although it would also make it easier for unaffiliated candidates to get on the ballot in judicial races.
"Judges make tough decisions on child abuse, divorce, property disputes, drunk driving, domestic violence and other issues that should be free from politics. This bill reverses that progress," Cooper said.
Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, the bill's lead sponsor, said he will push for lawmakers to override Cooper's veto.
When the measure cleared the House, it had 74 votes in favor, and 32 senators backed the measure. Assuming those votes hold, that would be enough to pass the bill notwithstanding Cooper's veto.
"I think it's very hypocritical of the governor to make that statement when the very first person he appointed to fill a judicial vacancy this year was Larry Leake," Burr said.
Leake is a Madison County attorney and was a long-time chairman of the State Board of Elections. He is also an active Democrat whom some Republicans blame for a too-soft campaign finance inquiry into former Gov. Mike Easley.
"I question whether or not (Leake) was the most qualified person to fill that vacancy, but I'm sure it's one of those that came down to rewarding members of his party," Burr said.
Despite an amendment to allow judges with no party affiliation an easier route to the ballot, Cooper said the petition process outlined in the bill is still too onerous.
"I am also concerned that judges who have chosen to register as unaffiliated voters so as to avoid partisan politics now have a difficult path to getting on the ballot," Cooper said.
A spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said that less party information means less interest in the races.
"In the 2016 election, almost 800,000 fewer North Carolinians voted in the Supreme Court race than in the presidential race because they did not have enough information about the judicial candidates. Surely, Gov. Cooper does not wish to suppress voter turnout in our judicial races," Amy Auth said.
The House and the Senate could consider Cooper's veto early next week.