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Commentary

The Greensboro News & Record makes several excellent points in this morning’s lead editorial regarding North Carolina’s move from standard, contested elections for the Supreme Court to “retention” elections in which sitting justices receive either a “yea” or “nay” vote. While retention elections are not without merit in theory, the editorial notes, in the present case they’re clearly all about politics:

“Yet, as usual, the Republican-led legislature had a partisan motive. Although the court is officially nonpartisan, Edmunds is a Republican and the court has a 4-3 majority of Republican justices. Even if Edmunds is voted out, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory could appoint another Republican to the court. So, the GOP majority is guaranteed to continue at least until 2018.

The legislature also added to a confusing mixture of election processes for state courts. Each level has a different way of electing judges. In Guilford County, for example, District Court judges are elected countywide but Superior Court judges are elected in districts. They are nonpartisan. State Court of Appeals judges are chosen in contested nonpartisan elections, but candidates’ party affiliations will appear on the ballot. No party label will be listed with Edmunds’ name in his retention election.”

The editorial goes on to note that the switch is now being challenged (with good reason) in a new lawsuit as violating the state Constitution:

“One of the plaintiffs, Sabra Faires, is a Raleigh attorney with 30 years’ experience who says she is qualified to serve on the Supreme Court but is denied the chance to run. Indeed she is. Under the new setup, she might not have an opportunity to run for many years, until a justice is voted out or retires.

Furthermore, voters are denied the chance to choose a new justice if they don’t want to retain Edmunds. The constitution requires that justices shall be elected by the voters of the state. The governor, not the voters, would choose someone to replace Edmunds under the new method.

The lawsuit will be contested, and the courts will decide which side is right. But the legislature invited a legal challenge by making this change in such a clumsy way. It should undertake comprehensive judicial reform rather than move pieces around in an inconsistent fashion for partisan reasons. In this case, a proposed constitutional amendment, put to a vote of the people, would have allowed a needed statewide discussion on the best way to choose Supreme Court judges.”

Click here to read the entire editorial.

News

Raleigh lawyer Sabra Faires and two voters filed a lawsuit today in Wake County Superior Court challenging a recently enacted law changing how state residents reelect state Supreme Court justices.

Instead of choosing between the incumbent and a challenger, voters now only have the right to approve or reject the sitting justice. Should the vote go against the incumbent, the governor would choose an interim justice who would sit for two years and then run for election.

The law was effective immediately in June and benefits conservative Justice Robert Edmunds, whose term is up in 2016.

According to the complaint filed today, Faires wants to challenge Edmunds in 2016 but cannot do so because of the retention law.

Faires and the two voters joining her in the complaint say that the retention law violates the state constitutional provision requiring that justices be elected and illegally changes the qualifications for the high court.

“North Carolina’s constitution says Supreme Court justices are to be elected, just as it says the governor is to be elected, legislators are to be elected, and sheriffs and many other officials are to be elected,” Faires said in a statement.

“If election of a Supreme Court justice means nothing more that a retention referendum, with no choice between candidates, then the General Assembly would be free to say that’s enough for all those other offices as well.”

Any change to the method of electing justices can only occur by way of a constitutional amendment, according to Michael Crowell, who represents Faires and the other plaintiffs.

“For the last 50 years every one of the 33 bills introduced in the legislature to change the method of selecting judges has been a constitutional amendment,” he said in a statement.

“For those who have worked for years to reform judicial selection, to come up with a better way to choose our judges, the 2015 law is a real setback. It taints the whole effort by trying to bypass the need for a statewide vote on amending the constitution.”

Because the lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of a state law, it will be heard by a three-judge panel selected by Chief Justice Mark Martin.

Commentary

Here’s an event that will be worth your time to check out tomorrow (Thursday) evening:

The Health of North Carolina’s Democracy
Threats to Voting Rights & Impartial Courts

Brought to you by North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections, Democracy North Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies, Southern Coalition for Social Justice and Legal Progress, a project of The Center for American Progress

Thursday, October 29th 6:30 – 8:00 p.m.
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh
3313 Wade Avenue – Raleigh, NC 27607

Join us for a screening of the mini-documentary

“Dirty Water, Dirty Money: Coal Ash and the Attack on North Carolina’s Courts”
on the real impact of special interest money on North Carolina’s judiciary.

Following the screening, North Carolina elected officials and policymakers will participate in a panel discussion on how voting rights, money in politics, and fair courts impact the health of North Carolina’s democracy. Featuring:

  • Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-57, Greensboro)
  • Anita Earls – Executive Director, Southern Coalition for Social Justice
  • Chris Kromm – Executive Director, Institute for Southern Studies

Please don’t miss this opportunity to learn more about making North Carolina’s democracy work for everyone – not just the wealthy and well-connected!

Please RSVP by clicking here.
For more information, contact LHarmon@americanprogress.org or (202) 495-3698

Commentary

As Sharon McCloskey reported in this space yesterday, the the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a modest victory for democracy this week when it said that states can ban direct campaign solicitations by judges. Would that North Carolina would join the list of states to do so.

What was perhaps the most amazing thing about the Court’s ruling, however, was Chief Justice John Roberts’ rationale. Ian Millhiser of Think Progress explains:

“Chief Justice John Roberts’s opinion for the Court in Williams-Yulee is certainly better for campaign finance regulation than a decision striking down this limit on judicial candidates — had the case gone the other way, judges could have been given the right to solicit money from the very lawyers who practice before them. Yet Roberts also describes judges as if they are special snowflakes who must behave in a neutral and unbiased way that would simply be inappropriate for legislators, governors and presidents:

‘States may regulate judicial elections differently than they regulate political elections, because the role of judges differs from the role of politicians. Politicians are expected to be appropriately responsive to the preferences of their supporters. Indeed, such ‘responsiveness is key to the very concept of self-governance through elected officials.’ The same is not true of judges. In deciding cases, a judge is not to follow the preferences of his supporters, or provide any special consideration to his campaign donors. A judge instead must ‘observe the utmost fairness,’ striving to be “perfectly and completely independent, with nothing to influence or controul [sic] him but God and his conscience.” As in White, therefore, our precedents applying the First Amendment to political elections have little bearing on the issues here.’

Most Americans would undoubtedly agree that judges should not ‘follow the preferences’ of their political supporters, as they would agree that judges should not ‘provide any special consideration to his campaign donors.’ But the implication of the passage quoted above is that members of Congress, state lawmakers, governors and presidents should provide such consideration to their supporters and to their donors. The President of the United States is the president of the entire United States. A member of Congress represents their entire constituency. Yet Roberts appears to believe that they should ‘follow the preferences’ of their supporters and give ‘special consideration’ to the disproportionately wealthy individuals who fund their election.”

Sadly, as Millhiser concludes, the view that it’s okay for donors to buy politicians is at the heart of the Court’s unabashed ruling in the infamous Citizens United decision. What’s bizarre about this week’s ruling is the Court majority’s apparent obliviousness to their own hypocrisy when it comes to donors buying judges.

News

Supreme courtIn an opinion with implications for those states where judges are elected, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today in a plurality opinion that states can ban direct solicitations.

In the case out of Florida, Williams-Yulee v. Florida State Bar, lawyer Lanell Williams-Yulee landed in hot water with the state bar after, in connection with her candidacy for a county judgeship, she sent out a mass mailing with her signature asking for contributions.

Williams-Yulee challenged a state law banning direct requests for money by judges, saying it violated her First Amendment freedom of speech, but the Florida Supreme Court disagreed, saying that the prohibition was “one of a constellation of provisions designed to ensure that judges engaged in campaign activities are able to maintain their status as fair and impartial arbiters of the law.”

Of the 39 states that have some form of elections for judges, 30 prohibit judges from personally soliciting campaign contributions.

That’s not the case in North Carolina — one of the nine states which allow judicial candidates to directly ask for campaign contributions from attorneys and law firms as well as other members of the public.

That’s been the law here since 2003, when according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, the justices of the Supreme Court radically revised the rules of judicial conduct, without any input from the public:

North Carolina not only turned the political activity regulations on their heads—changing the basic canon from “A judge should refrain from political activity inappropriate to his judicial office” to the current “A judge may engage in political activity consistent with his status as a public official”—but also eliminated the Pledge or Promise Clause and the ban on candidates’ personally soliciting campaign contributions.

(The Pledge or Promise Clause prohibits judicial candidates from making “pledges or promises of conduct in office other than the faithful and impartial performances of the duties of the office.”)

The current judicial code of conduct allows judges to speak at political party events, personally solicit contributions, identify themselves as affiliated with a particular party and otherwise engage in activities “consistent with the judge’s status as a public official.”

Read more about the implications of the Williams-Yulee decision for North Carolina here.