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Voters will decide if lawmakers can appoint judicial vacancies, pack state Supreme Court

North Carolina voters will officially get to decide in November whether lawmakers should get the power to appoint judicial candidates to the bench when there is a vacancy.

The House gained a vote Thursday during the third reading of Senate Bill 814, the “Judicial Vacancy Sunshine Amendment,” passing it 73 to 45. That means the constitutional amendment will be put on November’s ballot for an up or down vote by the public because the Senate already passed the measure.

SB814 establishes a commission that would vet judicial candidates submitted by the public as “qualified” or “unqualified.” The commission would put forth the “qualified” candidates to the General Assembly, which would then give the Governor at least two of their top picks for him to appoint to a judicial vacancy.

The makeup or function of the commission is left to be determined by lawmakers at a later time if the public passes the amendment.

Democratic Leader Darren Jackson pointed out during the floor debate Thursday that the real point of the amendment was to give his Republican colleagues the power to pack the state Supreme Court during a lame duck session before the end of the year if Anita Earls loses the election.

Earls, a registered Democrat and prominent voting and civil rights attorney who established the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, is challenging incumbent Barbara Jackson, who is a registered Republican, for a seat on the state Supreme Court.

Jackson said if Earls loses, the balance of the court remains a 4-3 Democratic majority. At that point, Republicans could vote to add two seats to the bench and then appoint the vacancies they create, shifting the balance to 5-4 Republican majority.

The Supreme Court is the highest court in North Carolina, and makes decisions in key constitutional arguments, including redistricting and separation of powers cases.

Jackson invited House members to call him out if his theory was wrong that packing the Supreme Court was part of their plan. No one corrected him.

“This is a court packing amendment to the state constitution and I’m against it,” Jackson said.

Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) said the amendment did not change North Carolinians’ right to vote for their judges, something Republicans understood they wanted.

“I understand the frustration levels are getting high in here, I understand people are getting tired,” he said. “To view this as anything other than a genuine attempt to find a way to fill judicial vacancies is just plain wrong.”

Republican lawmakers voted down two amendments by Democrats to change SB814.

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