North Carolina's Judiciary Election Across Party Lines - TribPapers

North Carolina’s Judiciary Election Across Party Lines

Duane Johnson. Photo submitted.

Hendersonville – I was invited by the Tribune Papers to present a Democratic party view of the importance of the upcoming judicial election in North Carolina. So, first a disclaimer. The opinions expressed in this article are my own. I do not hold any position, nor am I a spokesperson for the Democratic Party. I do believe these comments are as relevant to Republicans as they are to Democrats.

During elections, we are likely to focus more on the gubernatorial and legislative races than on the judiciary, but in these turbulent times, I believe the judicial branch is taking on increased importance. As a co-equal branch of government, the judiciary is a key player in our system of checks and balances. One of their primary roles is to ensure that the other branches of government are abiding by the Constitution. The court is supposed to rise above politics, and base its decisions on the law and apply the law equally.

One role of the courts is to protect the rights of the minority from the tyranny of the majority. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Shelby County v. Holder case gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by removing the preclearance requirement for voting legislation changes in states that had previously demonstrated voting rights violations against minorities. North Carolina fell under that provision. Immediately following the high court’s decision, the Republican majority in our Legislature passed a law that put new barriers in the way of voters. Especially for minorities.The U.S. Court of Appeals concluded that the law was unconstitutional since it negatively impacted minorities “with almost surgical precision.”

Currently, there is a dispute between the North Carolina Supreme Court and the Legislature. Following the 2020 census, North Carolina gained an additional congressional seat. The Republicans in the Legislature drew new congressional maps. The result was extreme partisan gerrymandering, providing Republicans with an overwhelming advantage. The NC Supreme Court required that new maps be drawn with less partisan bias. New maps were drawn, but due to their displeasure with the process, Republicans filed a suit in the U.S. Supreme Court based on the “independent state legislature doctrine,” which holds that state legislatures have the sole authority over elections for federal office. Neither state courts nor the governor can review or reverse their actions. Many experts consider this argument unconstitutional because it would eliminate the checks and balances inherent in the American democracy. But with the current ideological makeup of the Supreme Court, anything is possible. Eliminating the power of the courts to review legislative action would be a tragedy and put our democratic form of government in jeopardy.

There is another major issue in the North Carolina judicial elections. Between 2004 and 2018, judicial elections were nonpartisan. Also, prior to 2018, judicial campaigns were publicly funded. This had two benefits. First, by being nonpartisan, the voters were encouraged to consider the qualifications of the candidates without regard to party. Second, public funding meant that judicial candidates did not have to beg for campaign contributions.

In 2018, the Republican-controlled legislature reversed both of those provisions, with negative consequences. First, rather than evaluating a prospective judge’s qualifications, many voters will simply base their decision on the candidate’s party affiliation. Second, eliminating public funding requires judicial candidates to seek campaign contributions. The largest number of contributions come from lawyers who may be arguing cases before the judges to whom they contribute and special interests that may have future court cases. Whether or not this financial connection actually influences a judge’s decision, it does cause an appearance of a conflict of interest, thereby diminishing the legitimacy of the court. Either outcome is negative.

Given the current election procedures for judges and the importance of the courts in our government, what should the voters be doing? I believe that each of us should take the time and effort to carefully consider the qualifications, background, and temperament of each of the candidates for judgeships and vote for those who will serve us best. After reviewing their qualifications, I believe the Democratic candidates meet the criteria to serve as judges very well.