North Carolina editorial roundup
Posted 3:44 p.m. Wednesday
Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:
Asheville Citizen-Times on electing judges:
North Carolina's system of selecting trial judges needs to be reformed, but not in the way some legislators want.
The state has two parallel trial-court systems, Superior Court and District Court. Superior Court handles almost all felonies, major civil cases ($10,000 or more), probate and the administration of wills. District Court handles smaller civil cases, some felonies, misdemeanors and juvenile cases.
The state is divided into 30 divisions for each court, though the lines are not the same. Many divisions encompass more than one county. In only five counties (Forsyth, Guilford, Durham, Wake and Mecklenburg) are Superior Court judges elected from only part of the county. For District Court, Union is the only county so divided.
Some Republicans in the General Assembly want to change that. A bill in the House would create sub-districts within almost all urban counties. There is one glaring exception, which we'll discuss later.
Why? Proponents talk a lot about fair representation, but that's a smokescreen. The reason, the only reason, is to elect more Republicans to the bench. How is it fair to pack Buncombe County Democrats into a small district surrounded on three sides by a larger district drawn to enhance the chances of Republicans?
And what about Gaston County, an urban county which is not subdivided. Why no concern for the "rights" of people in different parts of Gaston? Because Gaston is predominantly Republican. Districts might allow a Democrat to be elected.
All of this debate misses the larger question: Why should judges be elected? Most of the arguments involve false analogies with the other two branches of government. Election proponents talk as if they think judges should follow the will of the people.
To the contrary, the duty of a judge is to the law and the constitution, not public opinion. Sometimes the right decision is not the popular one. Brown v. Board of Education comes to mind. Would an elected court have made that ruling?
Chief Justice Mark Martin, himself a Republican, is among those who think judges should not be elected. There seems to be some sentiment in the Senate to at least consider such a change.
"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 N.C. Bar Association members in Asheville in June.
"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.
Presumably, under an appointive system a nominations commission would present to the governor a list of names, ideally no more than three, from which the government would appoint the judge. There could be retention elections, under which the judge's name would appear on the ballot alone and voters would decide on a new term.
This might also be a good time to ask if North Carolina should continue having two separate trial-court systems with different but sometimes overlapping jurisdictions and different terms (eight years for Superior Court judges, four for District Court judges).
The key to making a merit selection system work is in keeping the nominations commission from being political itself. Maybe it could be made up on one appointee each from the House speaker, House minority leader, Senate president pro tem and Senate minority leader. The four would then pick a fifth member, who would be chair.
All this talk about judicial reform gives members of the General Assembly a chance to start moving toward real reform. Will they?
Winston-Salem Journal on a lawsuit settlement that ensures the public won't pay a large cost for inspecting state departmental documents:
Score another victory for accountability. A settlement announced last week ensures that the public won't be required to pay big costs to inspect our state's departmental documents — for now, at least.
The Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit that fights for clean water, wanted to inspect documents from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services related to the agency's oversight of animal agricultural operations flooded by major hurricanes. The department tried to charge the alliance more than $4,000 to inspect the documents, according to a press release from the alliance and the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represented the alliance.
In a suit filed in Wake County Superior Court, the center argued that the fee was illegal under the N.C. Public Records Act, which basically limits fees to the cost of copies of public documents.
With the settlement, the department agreed to make all the documents available for inspection at no charge and to reimburse the Waterkeeper Alliance litigation costs, according to the press release. The department also agreed to update its Public Records Act policy so it will no longer charge fees for the inspection of public records. And it agreed to donate $2,000 to the Sunshine Center of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition.
Brian Long, the public affairs director for the department, told the Journal editorial board: "The issue here was never production of the records; the department has been producing records all along. The dispute was over the cost of producing the records ... Regarding the fee invoice, the department was acting consistently with a policy implemented by the previous governor and in line with state law. Earlier this year, the current governor's administration changed this policy, and subsequently, we updated our public records policy to be in line with that of other state agencies."
That change was sorely needed.
Good for this win on access to records that belong to us all.
Making the information difficult to access leads one to wonder what the government is trying to hide. Transparency is always the best policy.
StarNews of Wilmington on a reverse osmosis water treatment facility:
Ripples from GenX have continued to spread, with traces of the chemical compound now found in groundwater near the Chemours plant in Bladen County.
We suspect those ripples also will be felt when voters in the Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer district choose three commissioners for the board of what is known as H2GO. The Nov. 7 election could determine whether or not work continues on a $30 million reverse osmosis water treatment facility.
The plant would mean that 25,000 people would get water sourced from underground aquifers rather than from the Cape Fear River. Unlike river water and shallow wells, aquifers are deep underground and are generally not exposed to man-made chemicals. Aquifer water tends to have bacteria, dissolved solids and salts, impurities easily removed by reverse osmosis. In fact, deep-aquifer water filtered by reverse osmosis is pretty much the gold standard.
The last time we weighed in, we saw no compelling need for the plant. Since then, however, GenX has become a factor, and we also are learning about other so-called "emerging contaminants" in the Cape Fear.
We don't know to what extent — if any — GenX and other contaminants might affect human health. There are many unknowns, but "unknowns" is not a word folks want associated with their drinking water. People must be able to trust that their water is completely safe. That trust has been eroded, and, for many people, is completely gone.
We are not panicking about drinking water from the Cape Fear. We are, however, less confident now in the river as the area's longterm water supply. And, unfortunately, we have little reason to believe the current leadership in the General Assembly will do much of anything to address pollution in our waters, pollution that is likely to get worse as more "emerging contaminants" are discovered. And who knows what the Honorables in Raleigh and also the Trump Administration will target next as they aim to roll back important environmental regulations.
While the StarNews Editorial Board does not endorse candidates, we will say that the reverse osmosis plant makes a lot more sense to us today than it did originally. In addition to GenX, there is also last year's supply line rupture to consider. That makes it hard to be skeptical of adding a high-volume, safe source of water.
We urge H2GO voters to become well-informed and get out and vote. They can help decide the source of the water that they drink every day. That is a unique opportunity, and, we'd argue, a vital responsibility.