The Federalist Society’s Triangle Lawyers Chapter hosted a discussion Thursday on merit selection, but panelists instead focused on the pros and cons of partisan judicial elections.
Buddy Wester, a business attorney from Charlotte, and Bob Orr, a former state Supreme Court justice — both of whom are registered Republicans — denounced partisan labels for judges, which were recently reinstated by GOP lawmakers.
“Of the vast majority of the voters considering judicial candidates, affiliation is the only sure thing the voter can know on that candidate and expresses, indeed, it assures, this unequivocal: this candidate will be allegiant to the platform and ideology of his or her party when he or she hears evidence and makes rulings in cases,” Wester said. “Never mind what the cases concern and that 90 percent plus of them have no political cast whatsoever to them.”
He added that the purpose of partisan labels is to lock all the judicial candidates “arm-in-arm” with candidates for other offices.
Orr said he considered himself an expert in statewide partisan judicial elections after running in five of them.
“In reality, in a state that now has 10 million residents with, I think, around 5.5 million registered voters, a partisan judicial race is a $1,400 lottery ticket for an eight-year term on one of our state’s two highest courts,” he said. “As you know, all you need is a law license and the filing fee and you can run for judicial office for the Court of Appeals or the state Supreme Court.”
He described challenges, including the tension partisan races creates within a court when colleagues of the opposite parties are running for office and ask each other for support.
Voters, he said, and often many lawyers, are clueless or poorly informed about how good a job any particular justice or judge is doing anyone running against them in a race.
“I don’t think partisan elections are any more transparent, and in some respects, work against it than reform systems,” he said.
The third panelist, Chris Bonneau, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh, tried to make a case for partisan elections, noting they weren’t “as bad as people say.”
“There’s no perfect way to select judges,” he said.
He said that partisan labels give voters more information about the candidates they vote for and increases transparency.
He added that North Carolina’s reputation for passing bills regarding judicial selection may be harming the public perception of the courts.
“Every year in states across the country, bills are introduced to change how judges are selected,” Bonneau said. “North Carolina is unique in that you guys actually pass them, and you pass them all the time. … If you’re concerned about the legitimacy of the courts, pick something and stick to it for awhile, and don’t keep changing it every time there’s a new political party in power, because that will do more to revoke the legitimacy of the courts than anything else you do.”
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin moderated the panel discussion. He endorsed merit selection last year before it was made known lawmakers were considering such a plan.
“My hope, as a part of this discussion today, is to help increase public interest in and understanding of the different methods of judicial selection,” he said. “I have personally been appointed to judicial office twice and I have run for judicial office four times — two partisan races and two non partisan races.”
Wester said toward the end of the meeting that he believed North Carolina could become the beacon for the best judicial selection model in the country if done right.