Party politics could enter judicial, school board races
Posted April 14, 2015
Updated April 15, 2015
Raleigh, N.C. — A Republican-majority House committee on Tuesday pushed through two bills that would force candidates for the North Carolina Supreme Court and Court of Appeals and every school board statewide to campaign for office under a party label.
The two bills could be on the House floor by the end of the week.
Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham, said statewide judicial candidates ran in partisan races until 2004, and political parties have continued to back their slates of preferred candidates ever since, even though the races were nominally nonpartisan. Having candidates run as Democrats or Republicans would give voters more information to determine whose philosophy best matches their own.
"Let's just be transparent about it," Jones said. "The fact that you have to put your party label on the ballot does not mean that you are any more or less partisan."
Supporters of House Bill 8 noted that judicial races garner much less attention from voters than others – about 500,000 fewer people cast ballots in statewide judicial races last fall than in the U.S. Senate race – and making them partisan could generate more voter interest.
Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, said party involvement could also weed out weaker candidates in the primary so only the best candidates would be running in the general election.
Having partisan judges risks losing the moral authority the Supreme Court carries in ruling on the constitutionality of state laws, argued Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham.
"You start throwing parties, particularly in a body that's going to be determining what you do," Michaux said to his colleagues, "I would take my chances on having a purely nonpartisan judiciary determine whether or not bills are good."
Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, noted that unaffiliated voters are the fastest-growing segment of North Carolina's electorate and asked how an unaffiliated candidate would run for one of these newly partisan judgeships. Jones said lawmakers would have to examine that issue.
The House Elections Committee cast a 17-11 party-line vote in favor of the bill.
Politics could engulf school boards
House Bill 324, which would shift all school board races in North Carolina to partisan campaigns as of 2016, raised similar arguments on both sides.
"We need truth in advertising," said sponsor Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow. "The electorate needs to know whom they're voting for philosophically."
Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, called the proposal "a terrible idea."
"The education of our children should be free of partisanship," Harrison said.
Some lawmakers said the proposal would force federal employees serving on school boards to resign their seats so as to not violate the Hatch Act, the 1939 law that prohibits federal workers from engaging in partisan political activity.
Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Bumcombe, said she used to serve on a nonpartisan school board and found everyone worked together better by not worrying about politics.
Jones asked if she underwent "a magical transformation" to run as a Democrat for her House seat. Fisher responded by saying that her values didn't change but that nothing the board did should have anything to do with a political party.
Blust and Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, expressed reservations about the statewide requirement, saying it should be left to individual school districts to determine if they want a partisan board. Seventeen boards are currently partisan.
The bill passed on a voice vote, with Stam siding with Democrats who opposed it.
"To do this to Wake County would be more excitement than I could tolerate," Stam said, calling for local bills on the matter.