North Carolina Republicans ‘rig the system’ by cancelling 2018 judicial elections

"Can judicial independence really exist in such a system?"

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper at a news conference in Morrisville, N.C. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper at a news conference in Morrisville, N.C. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

In its latest move to dramatically alter the judicial branch, North Carolina state Republicans and several Democrats on Tuesday overturned Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a bill that would cancel the 2018 judicial primary elections.

Cooper warned that the override was part of an effort to amend the constitution to allow the legislature to pick the state’s judges and “rig the system.”

Legislators also introduced a state constitutional amendment that would shorten the terms for judges to two years — the shortest in the nation. This would ensure that every judge would be on the ballot in the 2018 general election, without a primary to narrow down the number of candidates.

As ThinkProgress has reported, the North Carolina General Assembly has taken multiple actions to transform the judicial branch in the past year, including proposals to limit the governor’s authority to appoint judges, make judicial elections partisan, pack the state supreme court, and “unpack” the court of appeals to preserve the conservative majority. These attacks occurred as the state and federal courts began standing in the way of the legislature’s agenda by protecting voting rights.

The veto override comes as another bill aimed at gerrymandering judges in ways that would lead to fewer Democrats and fewer African Americans on the bench is pending in the legislature.

The legislature is expected to introduce another constitutional amendment to take away the people’s authority to choose North Carolina’s judges. This would be its ultimate power grab. Only two states, South Carolina and Virginia, currently allow legislatures to choose judges.

A recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice documented the conflicts of interest and nepotism that can result from a legislative appointment system. The reported discussed Rhode Island’s 1994 constitutional amendment to abandon legislative appointment after corruption scandals involving misappropriation of funds and connections to organized crime. It also noted that, “As recently as 2000, every justice on the South Carolina Supreme Court was a former General Assembly member.”

“What this means, in effect, is that by the time a judicial nominee becomes a judge in South Carolina, he or she is personally and professionally beholden to state lawmakers in unhealthy ways. Can judicial independence really exist in such a system?” the South Carolina Policy Council, a conservative think tank, said in a February analysis.

Judicial elections also raise questions about independence, because judges should be able to follow the law, even when it is unpopular with voters or campaign donors. But recent actions have shown that the North Carolina General Assembly is only interested in judges who will rubber stamp their agenda.

Gov. Cooper supported a switch from the current system of electing judges decades ago, as a legislator, but he criticized the proposed amendment as “an effort to take over the judiciary for political reasons instead of trying to find a way to get the best judges,” according to The News & Observer.

“Election of judges isn’t perfect, but it’s far better than this legislature controlling who the judges are going to be in every district at every level. I don’t think the people of North Carolina want to give up the right to vote for their own local judges and give that power to legislative political party bosses in Raleigh.”

Any amendment to the North Carolina Constitution to change how judges are chosen requires a supermajority vote in the legislature. Republicans in the legislature have a supermajority in both houses, thanks to gerrymandering.

The amendment would then need to go before the voters in a referendum. No state has approved a constitutional amendment to end judicial elections since the 1980s, and voters in several states have rejected such amendments since then.