New lawsuit challenges constitutionality of judicial retention elections

Raleigh lawyer Sabra Faires and two voters filed a lawsuit today in Wake County Superior Court challenging a recently enacted law changing how state residents reelect state Supreme Court justices.

Instead of choosing between the incumbent and a challenger, voters now only have the right to approve or reject the sitting justice. Should the vote go against the incumbent, the governor would choose an interim justice who would sit for two years and then run for election.

The law was effective immediately in June and benefits conservative Justice Robert Edmunds, whose term is up in 2016.

According to the complaint filed today, Faires wants to challenge Edmunds in 2016 but cannot do so because of the retention law.

Faires and the two voters joining her in the complaint say that the retention law violates the state constitutional provision requiring that justices be elected and illegally changes the qualifications for the high court.

“North Carolina’s constitution says Supreme Court justices are to be elected, just as it says the governor is to be elected, legislators are to be elected, and sheriffs and many other officials are to be elected,” Faires said in a statement.

“If election of a Supreme Court justice means nothing more that a retention referendum, with no choice between candidates, then the General Assembly would be free to say that’s enough for all those other offices as well.”

Any change to the method of electing justices can only occur by way of a constitutional amendment, according to Michael Crowell, who represents Faires and the other plaintiffs.

“For the last 50 years every one of the 33 bills introduced in the legislature to change the method of selecting judges has been a constitutional amendment,” he said in a statement.

“For those who have worked for years to reform judicial selection, to come up with a better way to choose our judges, the 2015 law is a real setback. It taints the whole effort by trying to bypass the need for a statewide vote on amending the constitution.”

Because the lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of a state law, it will be heard by a three-judge panel selected by Chief Justice Mark Martin.

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