Opinion

Opinion

Editorial: Ditch veto battle, legislators should work on commission's ideas to improve N.C. courts

Posted March 21

Gavel

A CBC Editorial: Tuesday, March 21, 2017; Editorial # 8137
​The following is the opinion of Capitol Broadcasting Company

Rather than a chance for a new confrontation, the General Assembly should view Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of their bill to make trial court judgeship elections partisan as an opportunity to address the needs and concerns of North Carolina’s judicial system in a more comprehensive fashion.

Over the last two years, the legislature has either forced through, or seriously pondered legislation that: increased the number of justices on the state Supreme Court; reduced the number of judges on the state Court of Appeals; required partisan labels on the ballots for the non-partisan election of state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judges; changed the way the courts handle challenges to the constitutionality of state laws.

In the process the legislature unwisely retreated from the state’s highly-regarded efforts at non-partisan public financing of judicial elections.

The piecemeal and clandestine nature of these most recent efforts has justifiably led to conclusions that they’re more about Republicans winning elections than improving the administration of justice or providing voters with more information about those seeking to be judges. Claims to the contrary are, at best, disingenuous.

The legislative leadership has the opportunity to skip a bombastic display of overriding Cooper’s veto and instead respond with a plan to take a comprehensive look at the need and concerns of the state’s court system. From that they could develop a well-reasoned program that would cover the administration of justice and the selection of those who preside in our courts.

The time is right. As Cooper’s veto was filed, the final report from the N.C. Commission of the Administration of Law and Justice was delivered to Chief Justice Mark Martin of the N.C. Supreme Court. Martin created the commission in 2015 and included judges, lawyers, legislators, government officials and general citizens on the study panel.

The 371-page report includes a variety of observations, proposals and recommendations to make the administration of justice in North Carolina more efficient, effective and recognizably fair and impartial.

See why Catharine Biggs Arrowood, a co-chair of the N.C. Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice, says piecemeal reform of the courts is dangerous.

While the full commission didn’t make a detailed recommendation, the Public Trust and Confidence Committee is clear in its concerns over partisanship and politicization of the courts:

“In order to enhance and preserve the highest degree of judicial integrity, fairness, and impartiality, the General Assembly should develop a selection process that ensures the highest caliber of judges and justices and minimizes the potential impact of campaigning and fundraising on judicial independence and public accountability,” according to the report. The committee was led by Brad Wilson, the Blue Cross Blue Shield CEO.

There is no urgency to act on Cooper’s veto, no election is imminent.

It would be wiser for the General Assembly to pause and set up a study to dive into the thorough report the Law and Justice Commission produced.

At a time when 76 percent of the state’s voters say judges’ decisions are influenced by political parties and running for office, continuing to pick partisan fights over the courts and judges is unproductive and hurts our justice system.

Skip the veto battle and move onto issues that truly need legislative attention.

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