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Veteran GOP lawmaker on merit selection: ‘I don’t think honestly the public is gonna accept it’

Sen. Dan Bishop

It’s not yet known how long the General Assembly’s current special session will last, but Sen. Dan Bishop said it’s likely some form of judicial reform will pass before it’s over.

“I do not know exactly what schedule something will advance on, but it is likely that there will be some resolution to the deficiencies in the voting districts this special session, I would say,” he said Thursday.

A joint House and Senate committee met Thursday for the first time to get more information about judicial redistricting — a plan the House prefers — and “merit” selection — a plan the Senate favors.

Much of the three-hour meeting presented the same information as previous, respective House and Senate committee meetings. It was clear the divide between House and Senate members over their preferred plans still existed.

It was also clear that despite putting out a preferred judicial selection plan, the “purple plan,” Senate members had not yet thought out the full details of such a measure.

Sen. Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus, Newton) said nothing had yet been written in bill form, and that there were still a lot of details to be sorted out, including any potential safeguards to prevent a majority party from choosing judicial nominees behind closed doors and any language to ensure diverse candidates.

Veteran Rep. John Blust (R-Guilford) expressed concern about the judicial selection plan and how it would be both perceived and used by either party in control. He said he did not think a constitutional amendment to take away the people’s right to vote for judicial candidates would be approved by the voters.

“The hard part is in the details of who gets to determine the merit and how do you work that out,” he said. “But the practical problem I think I have with it — I think if we came up with a foolproof system, I don’t think honestly the public is gonna accept it.”

Rep. John Blust

Blust also said he would like to see lawmakers reinstate the 2018 judicial primaries. He said he was worried about how many people would run for

“Knowing the calls I get already when there’s two names on the ballot for each position, I can just imagine what the public is gonna do when there’s … 10 names or possibly 15 for district court judge,” he said. “I think that’s gonna be a mess and is not going to reflect well on us if we don’t allow the number of people who file to be paired down in a primary.”

Lawmakers said they eliminated the primaries to allow more time for judicial redistricting. In previous years when there has not been a judicial primary, it’s resulted in more candidates and slim-margin wins.

With that in mind, Blust predicted more people would be likely to file for a judicial seat.

“I don’t know in a rural county, but in an urban county, I think almost every assistant public defender and every assistant [district attorney] dreams of being a judge,” he said, “And I just think you’ll see a boatload of names and the November ballot is going to be very long.”

The North Carolina Democratic Party has filed a federal request to stop the bill eliminating judicial primaries. A hearing in the case will take place at 9:30 a.m. Jan. 24 in Greensboro.

Bishop said there would be at least one more joint committee meeting. He did not know how long the special session would continue on.

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