Commentary

Political elections, political courts

In a column today Doug Clark of the News & Record in Greensboro takes a look at political elections producing political courts.

The piece is worth your time.

From Clark’s column:

Studies show that elected judges are more likely to rule against criminal defendants the closer it gets to an election. Why risk being called soft on crime, even if the law would argue for the accused?

Here in North Carolina, we’re electing one member of our state Supreme Court. Two-term incumbent Bob Edmunds is challenged by Wake County Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan.

It’s an important choice because, although the court is officially nonpartisan, it is currently occupied by four registered Republicans (including Edmunds) and three registered Democrats. A win by Morgan, a Democrat, will tilt the court’s balance.

In most cases, that doesn’t make a difference. Earlier this year, the court unanimously overturned an effort by the Republican legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory to strip teachers of tenure rights they’d already earned. Edmunds wrote that opinion.

Sometimes it does matter, such as when the court voted 4-3 to uphold Republican redistricting maps.

Keeping Edmunds on the court was so important to Republican legislators and the governor that last year they enacted a plan to hold a “retention election” this year rather than a regular election. Edmunds would have had no opponent; instead, voters would decide whether to re-elect him or not. If not, McCrory would fill the seat by appointment. It was a set-up for Republicans, but its authors forgot to read the state constitution, which requires real elections. The courts overturned the scheme.

We can see more political shenanigans at work. The ballot lists party affiliation for Court of Appeals candidates but not for candidates at any other level of our court system. When I mentioned that to my wife, she said what anyone else would say: “That doesn’t make sense.” No, but that’s how we do things in North Carolina, at least lately. Furthermore, Republican candidates are listed on top of Democrats, even in a “nonpartisan” race. Studies show that, where voters aren’t familiar with the candidates, they give a preference to those listed first on the ballot.

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