Remember the “Star Chamber” bill, signed into law last summer by Gov. Pat McCrory? That’s the bill rushed into last minute passage giving the justices of the state Supreme Court the sole authority to discipline judges — including themselves – and allowing them to decide if, when and who to discipline in secret.
Aside from support from sitting Justices Mark Martin and Paul Newby — whom lawmakers then identified as pushing for passage — the bill drew widespread opposition from other judges and justices of the state Supreme Court as well as all living presidents of the state bar association, who in a letter asked the governor to refuse to sign it.
The bill became law nonetheless and, as current bar association president Catherine Arrowood notes in this News & Observer commentary, “for the first time in 40 years, North Carolina voters cast their ballots for judges without any information about pending judicial ethics complaints.”
In a call for repeal, Arrowood continues:
Permitting the Supreme Court to discipline itself does not have the ring of fairness. If a justice on the Supreme Court violates the Code of Judicial Standards while running for re-election or fails to recuse himself or herself appropriately, the Supreme Court itself will be conducting the hearing. And the public will not know about the fact of the proceeding unless and until the court decides if the justice accused is to be disciplined. I cannot imagine that the members of our court find this a palatable or proper process.
A secret trial behind closed doors is the hallmark of a totalitarian government (if indeed any trial is allowed at all), not a democracy. The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that an accused, no matter his or her status, have a public and open trial. This presumption that our courts will be open, subject to very limited exceptions, also finds roots in the First Amendment. Under the First Amendment, the press and public must be allowed reasonable access to view proceedings in our courts.