Judicial ballots could get REALLY long next year

Posted October 17, 2017 4:55 p.m. EDT
Updated October 18, 2017 11:13 a.m. EDT

— Within hours of overriding a veto of legislation canceling all judicial primaries in 2018, top Republican lawmakers filed a bill Tuesday that could put every trial court and appellate court judgeship in North Carolina on the ballot next fall.

Senate Bill 698, dubbed Increase Voter Accountability of Judges, calls for a statewide referendum during the primary on a proposed constitutional amendment reducing the term of every Supreme Court justice, Court of Appeals judge, Superior Court judge and District Court judge to two years.

"The General Assembly is very serious about judicial reform. I hear concerns from my constituents all the time about judges legislating from the bench," Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, said in a statement. "Under this amendment, if a voter feels like a judge is acting like a legislator, they can vote to change their judge every two years just like they can vote to change their legislator every two years."

Lewis said he plans to file a similar bill in the House.

Currently, District Court judges serve four-year terms, while judges in all other courts serve eight-year terms. If voters approved the proposed amendment, the terms of all sitting judges would end Dec. 31, 2018, meaning they all would have to run for re-election in November 2018.

"This is an insidious attempt to intimidate judges and push them to choose the least worst option," Ford Porter, a spokesman for Gov. Roy Cooper, said in a statement. "With every week bringing a new, continually more partisan attempt to manipulate the courts, the Republican legislative leaders have revealed that they aren't interested in picking the best judges but instead picking judges who will agree with them."

The House on Tuesday morning completed the override of Cooper's veto of Senate Bill 656, which scraps judicial primaries next year. The Senate voted for the override Monday night.

Republican lawmakers say eliminating the primaries is necessary as the General Assembly debates a redraw of the state's election districts for Superior Court and District Court judges. It makes no sense to have candidates file in February for primaries when their districts may change, Lewis said on the House floor.

Democrats complained that the GOP is trying to swing the judiciary back in their favor after several laws passed in recent years were ruled unconstitutional. No primaries, redrawing districts and putting every judgeship on the ballot across the state would create a scramble for seats on the bench and would quickly end a two-year Democratic tilt on the Supreme Court.

Also, lawmakers earlier this year passed legislation calling for partisan judicial elections, meaning all candidates next year would have a party label next to their names.

"In the coming months, the Senate will carefully consider a number of options for reforming the way judges are selected in North Carolina, including the House’s judicial redistricting bill, moving to some form of merit selection of judges and retention elections for judges," bill sponsor Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, said in a statement.

Merit selection of judges and retention elections also would require constitutional amendments.