State Supreme Court Chief Justice makes call for judicial merit selection instead of elections

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin called on the General Assembly today to introduce a constitutional amendment to change judicial elections to a judicial merit selection process.

He made remarks today at the North Carolina Bar Association’s annual meeting in Asheville.

“Now I know that there’s never a good time to talk about merit selection of judges,” he said. “Critics will say that you’re trying to help one political party or the other. But I’ve been working on this issue for a long time. It’s a good government issue, not a political one.”

The recommendation was one made by the North Carolina Commission on the Administrative of Law and Justice, an interdisciplinary group that evaluated the framework of the state’s judicial branch.

“In order to enhance and preserve the highest degree of judicial integrity, fairness, and impartiality, the General Assembly should develop a selection process that ensures the highest caliber of judges and justices and minimizes the potential impact of campaigning and fundraising on judicial independence and public accountability,” the final report states.

Martin said at the meeting Saturday that he believes the judiciary should be as independent as possible.

“It should be free from the political considerations that are a normal and healthy part of the Executive and Legislative Branches,” he said.

He proposed the following basic components to ensure judges are independent and well qualified:

• First, a panel should evaluate judicial candidates in an objective and non- ideological way, and rate them as Well Qualified, Qualified, or Not Qualified. Both the Governor and the General Assembly should be able to appoint members of this panel;

• Second, an appropriate governmental authority with accountability to the people of North Carolina should appoint our State’s judges;

• And third, retention elections should be held at periodic intervals to ensure that the people of North Carolina continue to have a role in the process.

The General Assembly recently voted to make all judicial elections partisan again, joining the ranks of only seven other states, because they said they wanted voters to be equipped with more information when voting for judges.

Lawmakers have introduced and passed a number of bills this session changing the composition of the courts — bills that have been described by advocates and experts as blatant partisan power plays to politicize the judiciary.

With the exception of raising the juvenile age of prosecution, Martin has remained silent on all of those changes, despite recommendations from his commission that go against what lawmakers have been doing.

When asked in an email about a week ago about plans Martin had to announce a constitutional amendment request, Administrative Office of the Courts spokeswoman Sharon Gladwell said she hadn’t heard anything about it. The announcement was made via press release.

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