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Senate votes to make last of judicial elections partisan again

The Senate voted 32-15 Monday night to make Superior and District court judicial elections partisan again.

House Bill 100 will now be sent to Gov. Roy Cooper to be signed into law. It will be the last law to make all of North Carolina’s judicial elections partisan since lawmakers already added party labels back into Supreme Court judicial elections during a special session in December.

Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Moore, Randolph) said the bill was initially held up by the House a few years ago, but that the body had changed its mind and resurrected it. He encouraged his colleagues to pass the bill to give an edge to voters looking for more information about judges.

Democratic Leader Sen. Dan Blue vehemently opposed the bill and said it would end up being a bad move for Republicans. He speculated that good judges in urban, Democratic areas would lose their seats over party lines.

“I think that what you’re doing, if you start slapping labels, especially in district court … is dooming very bright and good Republican judges,” Blue said. “I think the independent judiciary is what really undergirds this entire system of ours.”

He said the bill would do an injustice to the judiciary, which is expected to be a referee among politics and make decisions based in fact and fairness.

“We really need to get to the point that we embrace the neutrality of the judiciary,” he said.

Tillman said he didn’t know which party might benefit from partisan judicial elections, but that he thought an “R” or “D” next to a judge’s name on the ballot would help voters out.

After the vote, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger released a statement about the body “returning to the system that was in place for decades prior to the late 1990s and early 2000s, before previous legislatures changed it to prevent voters from using party affiliation to elect judges with a conservative, strict constructionist approach to the constitution.”

He cited an Indy Week article that questions Supreme Court Justice Mike Morgan’s election to the bench last year as a highlight of “problems with the current system.” It should be noted that other Senate Republicans have denied that making judicial elections partisan again was a reaction to Morgan’s Supreme Court win.

It should also be noted that partisan judicial elections are not recognized as a best practice for keeping the courts independent, and North Carolina joins only seven other states across the nation that have them. Members of the public, legal advocates and attorneys have spoken out against HB100.

Nevertheless, the Senate persisted and passed it, and Berger commended them for it.

“Judges have the power to make decisions that impact millions of North Carolinians, and voters deserve to know where they stand on the important issues facing our state,” he said. “That’s why this bill restores a commonsense and straightforward partisan election system that lets voters know who shares their views on the proper role of the judiciary.”

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