Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Republicans denounce partisan judicial elections in merit selection discussion

Buddy Wester

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.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

State court refuses new districts in Wake, Mecklenburg; recommends new lawsuit

A state court has refused to order new districts in Wake and Mecklenburg counties after the U.S. Supreme Court stayed a special master’s plan for those areas, likely because of jurisdictional issues with state constitutional violations vs federal ones.

After the Supreme Court’s ruling last week in North Carolina v. Covington, a three-judge panel in Wake County Superior Court was asked to review a similar racial gerrymandering case challenging the same maps.

The panel concluded that “significant practical difficulties, if not jurisdictional impediments, exist when one court is called upon to construe and enforce another court’s order that was made upon a distinct and separate record by distinct and separate plaintiffs.”

The panel thought the new state constitutional claims in Covington’s remedial maps best be asserted in new litigation.

“We are reviewing what the next steps are for the plaintiffs in the case who have been seeking justice since 2011 and still have not found it,” said Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and attorney for the plaintiffs in the case. “We are concerned by the precedent set in today’s order. When a plan is found to be unconstitutional, it’s only right for the court to review the remedy enacted to make sure that it is legal and fair.”

Dickson v. Rucho_Filed Order on Remand by NC Policy Watch on Scribd

Courts & the Law, News

Judicial primaries are cancelled…again

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has cancelled North Carolina’s judicial primaries. Again.

A three-judge panel ordered that the state’s primary elections for appellate judicial seats should remain cancelled after U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Eagles reinstated them as part of a preliminary injunction.

The decision was not unanimous. Judge Stephanie Thacker, a Barack Obama nominee, and Paul Niemeyer, a George H.W. Bush nominee, agreed to stay the preliminary injunction. Judge Diana Motz, a Bill Clinton nominee, would not have granted the stay.

The North Carolina Democratic Party sued lawmakers and the state for eliminating judicial primaries this year alleging the measure infringed upon their First and 14th Amendment rights to Freedom of Association, or the rights of groups to take collective action to pursue the interests of its members.

Attorneys representing the legislature and the state argued, among other things, that the initial decision to cancel primaries this year was made because they could be rendered moot if judicial redistricting or merit selection passes both chambers.

It should be noted that neither such judicial reform proposals have come to fruition at the legislature yet.

John Wallace, an attorney who represents the Democratic Party, said Friday afternoon that they were considering available options after the 4th Circuit’s ruling. They could request the U.S. Supreme Court make a final decision in the case.

Candidate filing for the appellate judicial primaries that Eagles reinstated was set to begin Monday. Now, barring any further action by the courts, the judicial candidate filing period will run from June 18-29, according to the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

Courts & the Law, News

Three-judge panel to hear more Cooper v. Berger challenges today

Attorneys for Gov. Roy Cooper and GOP legislative leaders will be back in state court today.

A three-judge panel will take up motions to dispose of two issues in the separation of powers case, Cooper v. Berger. The first issue involves House Bill 239, a measure that reduced the Court of Appeals from 15 judges to 12, and the second involves a voucher mandate in the budget bill, Senate Bill 257.

Cooper argues that Section 1 of HB239 purports to shorten three appellate judicial terms to fewer than eight years. He asks the court to declare it unconstitutional and therefore “void and of no effect.”

The rest of that bill deals with different types of appeals and court workload.

As for the voucher mandate, Cooper argues that it’s unconstitutional because the General Assembly mandated what he could include in his base budget.

“By mandating what the Governor must include in his proposed budget, the General Assembly is exercising core executive power in violation of separation of powers,” the complaint states.

The three-judge panel designated to hear the challenges are Judges Henry Hight, a registered Democrat who serves Franklin, Granville, Vance, and Warren counties; Jay Hockenbury, a registered Republican serving New Hanover County; and Nathaniel Poovey, a registered Republican serving Catawba County.

The hearing begins at 10 a.m. and will be held in Courtroom 303 at Campbell University School of Law.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

New hybrid bill includes revision of Ethics, Elections merge

The North Carolina Supreme Court recently struck down a General Assembly law merging the State Board of Elections and State Ethics Commission, and lawmakers are trying to pass a fix before heading back to the lower court.

House Bill 90 addresses education issues, Atlanta Coast Pipeline funds and the Cooper v. Berger decision from the Supreme Court.

The measure adds one seat to the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement for someone who is not affiliated with either of the political parties with the most registered affiliates.

That means the Board would consist of four Republican members, four Democratic members and one unaffiliated member. Cooper can appoint all nine members of the new board — eight from a list of names compiled by the majority parties and one from a list of two names compiled by the other eight appointed members.

“The purpose of this legislation is to implement the decision of the North Carolina Supreme Court … to give the Governor executive control over the Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement and to provide for representation on the State Board by unaffiliated and third-party voters,” the bill states.

Cooper’s office has not yet responded to a request for comment.