Legislative News by Nelda Holder –
It is hard to know where to begin with this column, other than to say that today I am giving you a personal opinion.
It is my alarming observation that the state of North Carolina, my own home state and host to my immigrant great-great grandfather, a stone mason from Ireland (who helped build the Capitol in Raleigh), is currently sailing with shredded flags straight into a hurricane.
Battered by numerous constitutional issues that have involved no less than the lifeblood of our nation—the right to vote—we are now facing a monumental storm that is being fed by political climate change. And yes, I do mean to be an alarmist.
Stop for just a minute and think about our elections. When we elect state representatives and senators, it is for a two-year term. Their job is primarily to wrestle a state budget into place and to consider—and potentially pass—legislation that is hopefully both necessary to and good for the state. Legislation that oils the machinery of government. Legislation that enhances the lives of state citizens. Legislation that invites economic prosperity. Legislation that safeguards our health and environment.
I have no idea how many of this state’s 10.15 million inhabitants might object to the criteria I just listed. But as I said, this is my personal opinion. I always thought government was supposed to function as a focal point for ideas and actions that move us forward as individuals and as a people. And “smart” government would, therefore, not be inclined to turn the ship of state directly into a massive, dark, foreboding, uncharted course—at least not without numerous safeguards and soundings.
But it is precisely that danger that I see, sense, and smell in the benighted decision late in this 2017 legislative session when Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Bladen/Brunswick/New Hanover/Pender) filed Senate Bill 698, titled “Increase Voter Accountability of Judges.”
Much has already been written about this proposal, and it is difficult to find positive opinions of turning judicial elections into two-year campaign cycles. The fact that doing so requires an amendment to the North Carolina Constitution means, at minimum, this proposal must be weighed very carefully. Constitutions, in our form of government, are not documents to be toyed with. They are the scaffolding that holds us up as a state, and as a nation. You do not tamper with a foundation lightly or on a whim. At least, that’s what my daddy taught me. Not, that is, unless your reason is to introduce a structural weakness.
So let us ask the question: How would electing judges for our district court (now four-year elections), our superior court (now eight-year elections), and our appellate and Supreme Court (now eight-year elections) every two years enhance the goal of an independent judiciary? Or this one: What would happen to a complicated case assigned to a judge late in a two-year term (say, mid-October), if he or she lost a reelection bid? Would it be reassigned and reheard by a new judge, or rushed through after the election but before a new judge is installed? Or, try this really unattractive question: How would each and every judge in the state, essentially involved in perpetual campaigning for reelection, handle politically sensitive issues involved in the cases before them?
I have a lot more questions about this, but those might get your own brain started. (Don’t forget this particular nugget: the potential financial entanglements of statewide judicial campaigns since the Legislature recently removed public funding.)
So, I’ll leave you with those as my initial thoughts regarding SB 698. I daresay I’ll be back with more. But for now, I’ll share the thoughts of more august and experienced minds in this state regarding this proposal.
“Nowhere in America do voters elect their general jurisdiction judges for two-year terms of office… Judicial terms of office are longer than executive and legislative terms of office because judges have a different function.”
~ Chief Justice Mark Martin of the NC Supreme Court (Republican); from Chief Justice’s Statement on House Bill 698 (NC Bar)
“A deliberate attack on the independence of the judiciary.”
~ Retiring Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens, a 33-year veteran (Unaffiliated); from the News & Observer
“There’s this sense of ‘we have all the power, so if we want to shaft you, we’ll shaft you’… I appeal to my fellow Republicans: Let’s be the party of good government. Let’s not be the party of coercive government.”
~ Bob Orr, former NC Supreme Court justice (Republican); from the News & Observer
“The gravest potential threat to the independence and integrity of the state judicial system in North Carolina history.”
~ Gene Nichol, Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law, UNC (Democrat); WRAL.com
And finally, bear in mind that in overriding the governor’s veto of SB 656, the General Assembly has now canceled the judicial primary that would have taken place in conjunction with the 2018 General Election. Ostensibly, that will mean the General Election final ballot will be replete with names of judicial hopefuls, sans winnowing. Or put more glaringly, that means that the next crop of judges elected in this state may take their post with the backing of a mere fraction of the electorate—absolutely not guaranteed to be a majority.
Indeed, “majority rule” now has a very hollow sound in this state.
This has been the opinion of columnist Nelda Holder
Bringing it home
As a wrap-up of this year’s activities by local legislators, we offer the following statistics.
Note: The General Assembly is scheduled to reconvene on January 10, 2018.
Nelda Holder is the author of The Thirteenth Juror – Ferguson: A Personal Look at the Grand Jury Transcripts. Read Holder’s blog, www.politicallypurplenc.com