The North Carolina Senate filed a Constitutional amendment Tuesday that would shorten all judges and state Supreme Court justices terms to two years and end all sitting judges terms in December 2018.
Bob Orr, a prominent Republican who served as a justice on the state Supreme Court and as a candidate for governor, described the Constitutional amendment, Senate Bill 698, as a “continued effort to try and intimidate the judiciary.”
“It’s just wrong,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday.
Orr said the amendment sends the wrong message to the judiciary that if judges won’t rule the GOP’s way, lawmakers will retaliate.
“That’s just fundamentally repugnant to everything I believe,” he said.
He added that when the 1868 state Constitution was being discussed — it was the first one with a requirement for judges to run for election — the issue was how long a term judges should serve, not how short. He said some lawmakers at the time wanted 16-year terms.
“They needed longer terms to remove them from the electoral process,” Orr explained. “Not only [are two-year terms] a bad idea, it’s just fundamentally a bad policy. I don’t think the legislators or the public want judges to be full-time candidates.”
Orr said he hopes lawmakers will have the sense to vote the Constitutional amendment down before it even has a chance to make it on the ballot.
“It just sends the wrong message in so many ways,” he added.
Separate branch of government
The amendment, which had not been publicly discussed before it was filed, if passed, would open every judicial election up for candidates across the state without any primary elections. Lawmakers voted Tuesday to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of SB656, which eliminates judicial primaries next year.
There are currently 272 District Court judges, 109 Superior Court judges, 15 state Court of Appeals judges and seven state Supreme Court justices, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). SB698 would end all of their terms on Dec. 31, 2018.
If SB698 passed, North Carolina would also become the only state in the nation with two-year term limits for Supreme Court justices. All judges and justices in the state serve eight-year terms, except District court judges who serve four-year terms.
Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Bladen, Brunswick, New Hanover, Pender), who filed the Constitutional amendment, did not return a phone message or email seeking comment.
Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), told WUNC that the thought behind the amendment “would be if you’re going to act like a legislator, perhaps you should run like one.”
His comment reduces the judiciary to a political branch of government when in fact it is meant to be completely independent.
“Courts in our democracy serve a number of roles: critically, they serve as a check on the whims of the political branches, and they serve as an assurance to the public that everyone will be held to the same set of rules,” said Douglas Keith, counsel with the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “To fulfill these responsibilities fairly and independently, though, they need greater insulation from the political pressures governors and legislators face.”
He added that by establishing the shortest terms for high court judges in the country, North Carolina lawmakers are “setting up judges to face the pressures of big money political campaigns constantly, without time to stop campaigning, let alone be independent.”
‘War’ on the judiciary
It’s been reported that the Constitutional amendment could be used as a bargaining tool to get judges to negotiate with lawmakers on judicial redistricting and “merit” selection.
Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham), who is a former Chief District Court judge, said she doesn’t think it will work.
“I hope it will open their eyes to see how they’re trying to manipulate the courts,” she said.
She added that the number of bills filed targeting the courts has “gotten to the point of absurdity.”
“How much more damage can they do to the integrity of the court system?” she asked. “It’s pure insanity. Step-by-step, it’s taking away judges’ professionalism and authority and turning them into politicians.”
Rep. Joe John (D-Wake), a former Court of Appeals judge, agreed, noting that the latest proposal is but the most recent in a long line of bills this year “seeking to bring the judicial branch of government to heel.”
“In attacking ‘legislating from the bench,’ the bill sponsor is referencing judges doing their constitutionally prescribed duty in reviewing enactments by the General Assembly, i.e., engaging in the ‘checks’ and ‘balances’ among the branches of government fully guaranteed by both our federal and state Constitutions,” he said. “Because legislators have so often grossly overreached and impartial judges have properly stepped in, ‘war’ on a constitutionally mandated separate, independent, co-equal branch of government, the judiciary, has been declared.”
Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin was not immediately available for comment. Sharon Gladwell, spokeswoman for the AOC, said Tuesday that they had just been made aware of the amendment and would soon read it.
Cooper’s office did not respond to an email seeking comment about the amendment.
Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause NC, said the amendment is another troubling example of the legislature attempting to undermine the judiciary.
“We call on the legislature to reject this ploy to politicize our courts and to end these reckless power plays,” Phillips said. “Instead, the legislature should work in a respectful and productive fashion with the judicial branch on any reforms that may legitimately be needed to ensure our court system functions fairly and effectively for all citizens of our state.”
The House and Senate have both adjourned until January, so the amendment isn’t likely to be taken up before then.