It’s been one week since lawmakers introduced a Constitutional amendment that would reduce all of North Carolina judges’ terms to two years and force them to run for reelection next year.
It’s a proposal that has been met with bipartisan skepticism and criticism, especially from those who have actual first-hand knowledge of the courts.
“This is really an unnecessary step to try to bully the judges into supporting some of the legislators’ plans, including redistricting,” said retired Judge Doug McCullough.
McCullough knows a thing or two about bullying. He spoke at a panel earlier this year and revealed that the Republican party asked him to retire early from the Court of Appeals so that former Gov. Pat McCrory could appoint a judge to his seat and not current Gov. Roy Cooper. He declined.
He did, however, leave the bench early as a result of a Republican policy change. Lawmakers voted earlier this year to reduce the Court of Appeals from 15 judges to 12 — McCullough retired early, allowing for the law to not take effect right away.
He has said publicly many times that at the heart of his decisions was his integrity. He said last week that judges, however they are selected, want to do the best job they can, and that doesn’t include being intimidated to rule on the side of lawmakers.
“You’re not going to be beholden to anybody to rule in any particular way in a case if you are truly a judge with integrity,” McCullough said. “I think it’s just sad that certain that certain members of the legislature feel the need to attempt to intimidate the judiciary by introducing legislation they know is unpopular, counter to the benefit of the people of North Carolina and is very unlikely to ever pass.”
He added that he didn’t understand why lawmakers would support a measure that would harm North Carolinians.
He, like former GOP state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, brought up the debates from the 1868 Constitutional Convention, in which lawmakers discussed lengthier judicial term limits to keep judges out of politics as much as possible.
“Judges would be forced to run constantly, just like legislators, and we’re not legislators,” McCullough said of the Constitutional amendment proposal.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Edmunds said the amendment, Senate Bill 698, at the very least gives the appearance of injecting politics into the judiciary, which causes a loss of credibility with the public.
“I think it’s just critical that the judiciary continue to enjoy the public perception that it’s a body not governed by politics and instead governed by the law,” he said in a phone interview last week.
Edmunds said he hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about two-year term limits but that it would be asking a lot of potential judicial candidates to run for election so frequently. If passed, North Carolina would be the only state in the nation with two-year term limits for the Supreme Court.
“Judges, when they take the bench, usually give up a [law] practice,” he said. “For a two-year term, that’s going to discourage and filter out a lot of candidates, well-qualified candidates.”
There will always be people to run, he added, but shorter terms will come with a cost-benefit analysis and many candidates may not want to start over every two years.
Edmunds said he hopes the amendment doesn’t make it to the ballot.
“I question the wisdom of it,” he said.
Lawmakers aren’t expected to return to Raleigh until January to take up the measure. Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Bladen), who sponsored SB698, has not responded to multiple requests for comment about the amendment.