News

BREAKING: Court of Appeals panel to reject scheme for judicial retention elections

According to multiple social media posts and a story by Mark Binker at WRAL.com, a three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals has indicated that it will strike down the new scheme for retention elections for state Supreme Court justices. This decision is a major defeat for yet another of the controversial electoral changes enacted by conservative majorities in the General Assembly in recent years. Here’s Binker:

The three-judge Superior Court panel that heard a challenge to the law earlier this week has notified attorneys on both sides of the case that they have found for those seeking to upend the law.

“The court did notify our attorneys today that it is granting the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment,” said Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office.

Michael Crowell, an attorney for Sabra Faires, a long-time legislative staffer who challenged the law, confirmed the court had relayed the same message to him.

For more background on the case and what is at stake, check out NC Policy Watch reporter Sharon McCloskey’s front page story from earlier this week by clicking here.

Commentary

Editorial: Legislature was off-base with switch to retention elections for Supreme Court

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

Poll shows NC voters believe courts are politicized

North Carolinians believe that wealthy individuals and white people receive better treatment by the state courts than do black residents, Hispanics, low-income defendants or those without a lawyer, according to a recent Elon University Poll surveying registered voters about their political opinions and views of the state court system.

“The public in North Carolina have high levels of confidence in the local police force and generally believe most people receive fair outcomes in our court system,” said Kenneth Fernandez, an assistant professor at Elon and director of the poll.

“However, when asked specifically about how blacks, Hispanics, non-English speaking and low-income people are treated, most respondents acknowledge these groups frequently receive worse treatment by the courts.”

The poll included questions suggested by the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice, an independent commission convened earlier this year by Chief Justice Mark Martin of the Supreme Court of North Carolina.

More than 80 percent said they were at least somewhat confident in their local police or sheriff’s offices, though that number dropped when minority voters responded.

And nearly 66 percent said they were at least somewhat confident in the state court system.

But more than 75 percent of those surveyed believe the state courts are influenced by politics, and almost as many believe that judges’ decision are affected by the fact that they must seek election.

“These results may reflect the fact that North Carolina had the nation’s second-highest level of campaign spending in judicial elections in 2014,” said Jason Husser, an Elon assistant professor and assistant director of the poll. “Our state trails only Michigan in how much money all candidates spent in seeking seats on the bench.”

Elon’s live callers surveyed 1,234 residents between Oct. 29 and Nov. 2, 2015. The survey had a margin of error of 2.79 percentage points for a sample of North Carolinians weighted by age, gender, race and phone use.

See the full report of the poll here.

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Commentary

Editorials blast voucher ruling

Last week’s ruling that North Carolina tax dollars may be used to support private schools with literally no standards of accountability at all has generated some scathing editorials from the state’s major newspapers. Here are a few excerpts:

From Raleigh’s News & Observer:

“It is distressing on its face, this idea that public money can go toward the expenses of private schooling. It crosses the divide between public and private, between church and state, between common sense and partisan ideology.

And yet, in a ruling with a clear partisan flavor, the North Carolina Supreme Court, having snatched the confrontation over a school voucher program out of the hands of the N.C. Court of Appeals where it should properly have gone, has upheld the Republican legislature’s voucher program. This is a devastating ruling for the future of public education.”

From the Greensboro News & Record:

“In 1997, the N.C. Supreme Court unanimously delivered its landmark Leandro ruling that declared the state has an obligation to offer every child a “sound, basic education.”

In a 4-3 decision Thursday, the court regrettably took a big step back from that principle, finding that the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program is constitutional.”

From the Fayetteville Observer (after noting that it does not oppose vouchers):

“That said, we do have a deep concern about the lack of accountability in the voucher program, an issue raised in Justice Robin Hudson’s dissent. ‘The main constitutional flaw in this program,’ she wrote, ‘is that it provides no framework at all for evaluating any of the participating schools’ contribution to public purposes; such a huge omission is a constitutional black hole into which the entire program should disappear.’

The investment of tax dollars must be accompanied by accountability. The General Assembly needs to remedy that problem. If it does, we expect the voucher program to improve the lot of some students who otherwise might fall into the cracks and never see success.”

Stay tuned. There will be lots more like this to come.
News

Breaking news: N.C Supreme Court rules in school voucher case, vouchers allowed

The N.C. Supreme Court ruled that public dollars can be used for vouchers that allow low-income children to attend private schools in North Carolina, in a ruling released late Thursday afternoon.

That will mean that funding will continue for the voucher program this upcoming school year.

In the 55-page opinion released late Thursday afternoon, N.C. Chief Justice Mark Martin said that the legislation creating the vouchers did not overtly counter the state’s constitution, and therefore the court could not rule the program unconstitutional.

“Our constitutionally assigned role is limited to a determination of whether the legislation is plainly and clearly prohibited by the constitution,” Martin wrote. “Because no prohibition in the constitution or in our precedent forecloses the General Assembly’s enactment of the challenged legislation here, the trial court’s order declaring the legislation unconstitutional is reversed.”

You can read the full decision, including the dissents, here.

Opponents of the measure had argued that the private school vouchers drain needed resources for public schools, and that it violated the state constitution to send public money to unaccountable private schools that are often religious in nature and can pick and choose (or discriminate against) their students.

Proponents, on the other hand, said the “opportunity scholarships” offered a needed educational choice to poor families unable to afford private schooling on their own.

For background, read this excerpt from an earlier article from N.C. Policy Watch reporter Sharon McCloskey:

In December 2013, groups that included taxpayers and the state and local school boards filed two separate lawsuits, alleging that the law violates state constitutional provisions requiring the expenditure of public funds exclusively for public schools, and contending that a voucher program wholly devoid of standards fails to meet the state’s obligation to provide all children with a “sound basic education” and thus does not satisfy the constitution’s “public purpose” provision.

[Superior Court]Judge Hobgood agreed with the challengers and temporarily blocked implementation of the program this past August, but state appellate courts later allowed monies to flow to families already approved for vouchers for the current school year while the cases proceeded in the courts.

The Supreme Court has likewise allowed the application process for vouchers next year to move forward while it considers the appeal.