Courts & the Law, News

House Republicans pass committee hurdle to make last judicial elections partisan again

District and Superior Court judicial races could soon be partisan again.

House Bill 100 passed the Elections and Ethics Law Committee after debate Tuesday about whether judges should be identified by their political affiliation.

There were efforts in the late 1990’s, early 2000’s to hide judges’ party labels on the ballot to keep judicial races nonpartisan.

“I believe this has caused confusion and allowed judicial candidates to win really for no reason other than their placement on the ballot or a catchy name,” said Rep. Justin Burr (R-Montgomery, Stanly), a sponsor of the bill.

He said labeling judges will give voters the critical information they seek and give them “at least an idea” of each candidate’s political ideology.

Representatives Jason Saine (R-Lincoln), Dana Bumgardner (R-Gaston) and Cody Henson (R-Henderson, Polk, Transylvania) are also sponsors of the bill and spoke out about why labels should be added back into judicial elections.

“This issue is the number one unequivocally asked question [at the polls],” said Bumgardner, adding that he’s worked a lot of elections. “[Voters] don’t know who they’re voting for — they’re just picking a name on the ballot.”

Saine said “voters are hungry” for party labels.

Democrats disagreed. Rep. Grier Martin (D-Wake) said he agrees with the premise of the bill that voters aren’t well informed about judicial candidates but said his solution differs from Republican’s.

He said more relevant information to judges should be available on the ballot, like where they went to law school and how many years and what type of law they’d practiced.

“One thing both parties can agree on is that we don’t want activist judges,” Martin said. “If the only information you’re giving voters is partisan, you’re creating a system that almost guarantees partisan activism [among judges].”

Rep. Darren Jackson (D-Wake) said that adding party labels might help the Republican party in rural areas but would hurt them in bigger areas where well-respected Republican judges currently sit in Democratic-voting counties and would certainly lose, possibly to a less qualified candidate, if labeled on the ballot.

Kim Crouch, Director of Governmental Affairs for the North Carolina Bar Association, spoke out against the bill during the public comment portion of the committee meeting. She said the Bar Association in general opposes the election of judges and encouraged an appointment or selection process to recruit impartial judges.

Rep. Henry Michaux Jr. (D-Durham) agreed that the General Assembly should be looking at ways to free judges from the weight of political affiliation and that elections in general may not be the best way to do that.

Republicans continued to argue that voters should be given party label information, and that just because a judge was elected on ideology didn’t mean they had to rule along politic lines.

GOP lawmakers already added party labels back into Supreme Court judicial elections during a special session in December despite protests from Democrats, attorneys and members of the public. District and Superior Court are the last judicial races without party labels.

Partisan judicial elections are not recognized as a best practice, and North Carolina joins only seven other states that use party labels to identify judges on the ballot.

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