Commentary, Defending Democracy

Yet another dire warning about the GOP’s effort to rig the state courts

A Greensboro News & Record editorial tells it like it is with respect to the ongoing effort of legislative Republicans to remake and rig the state courts.

The editorial comes in response to a public event that took place in the Gate City last week with the help of N.C. Voters for Clean Elections. After spelling out the long list of dramatic changes on the courts imposed in recent years (including making all judicial races partisan, ending public financing, gerrymandering districts, shrinking the Court of Appeals to prevent Governor Cooper from appointing new judges and, more recently, considering constitutional amendments to impose much more radical changes), the editorial (“Court meddling demands scrutiny”) concludes this way:

“The public should never be hit by so many significant changes at once — especially changes motivated by partisan politics.

Fortunately, people who seemed unaware of recent actions are starting to pay attention. A meeting sponsored by several advocacy groups last week drew 175 people to Greensboro’s Temple Emanuel. It was the second of a dozen forums planned for cities across the state.

The discussion was moderated by Elon Law professor David Levine, but only Democratic legislators attended. Republican Rep. Jon Hardister at least sent a statement, although his claim that court changes are not driven by partisan politics isn’t believable. When one of the first moves is to put party labels on court elections, it’s a partisan exercise.

At the District Court level, the introduction of gerrymandering is clearly calculated to help Republicans win judicial seats — for all that matters. Divorces, child support, traffic violations and small-dollar civil suits have nothing to do with partisan politics. But splitting the Guilford County electorate will deny voters the opportunity to choose most of the local judges they will face if they have to go to court.

The Court of Appeals was reduced in size only after Democrat Roy Cooper was elected as governor. The move prevents him from appointing replacements when judges reach the mandatory retirement age.

The worst possible change would be to cut short all judicial terms. Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and Superior Court judges are granted eight-year terms so that they aren’t constantly pushed and pulled by the politics of the moment. In the federal system, judges serve lifetime terms for that reason. That’s how important the founders believed it was to insulate them from politics. Serving only two years between elections, judges would have to raise money and campaign virtually all the time. The idea is absurd.

Why might this happen? In 2016, Democrats gained a 4-3 majority on the Supreme Court. This legislative scheme would nullify that election and throw the entire court up for grabs in 2018. The public should reject political shenanigans in the judicial branch of government.”

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