Gov. Roy Cooper delivered a well-aimed veto.
“We need less politics in the courtroom, not more,” he said in rejecting House Bill 100, which would require partisan elections for District and Superior Court judges. He added that, under the bill, “judges who have chosen to register as unaffiliated voters so as to avoid partisan politics now have a difficult path to getting on the ballot.”
Cooper should keep his veto stamp handy because several more efforts to politicize the courts are likely to reach his desk. The Republican legislature keeps trying to weaken the governor and make the courts more partisan.
Bills have recently passed the House to transfer the power to fill judicial vacancies from the governor to lawmakers and to reduce the N.C. Court of Appeals from 15 judges to 12. None of these measures was recommended by the judicial branch.
Proponents said the legislature is better suited to fill vacancies in local courts because a Democratic governor might make unpopular appointments in the districts of Republican legislators.
That’s possible, but a Republican legislature might make unpopular appointments in Democratic counties, such as Guilford. Should legislators representing 99 other counties, who aren’t accountable to Guilford County voters, select our judges? Or should the governor, who is accountable to Guilford voters?
The bill shrinking the Court of Appeals isn’t justified by changes in the court’s workload, which the legislature actually increased last year.
Rather, it seems to serve a more partisan purpose. The next three judges who retire would not be replaced under this bill. The next three to reach the mandatory retirement age of 72 are Republicans. The bill would deny the Democratic governor the chance to fill those vacancies.
Politics aside, this scheme would create operational problems. The court does most of its work in panels of three judges. So when it numbers 14 judges, and then 13, the division won’t compute.
Yet another bill proposes that vacancies on the Supreme Court and Superior Court should be filled by candidates recommended by the political party of the departing judge. That would be a good way to seat political activists on the courts but not the most qualified jurists.
Over the past 15 years or so, North Carolina had moved away from partisan judicial elections. Now the legislature is working to restore party labels at all levels of the courts. Not only does that invite more politics into the courts, it puts truly nonpartisan candidates at a disadvantage. It makes no sense to discourage men and women who don’t want to be partisan politicians from serving in our courts.
The legislature has the power to make these changes, and override Cooper’s vetoes, but this is not how anyone should promote court reform. Where is the objective analysis of how courts can work more effectively, serve the public more fairly and see that justice is done more impartially?
None of these proposed changes seems designed to accomplish those objectives. On the contrary, they look more like maneuvers intended to give the legislature and political parties more power.
The judicial branch of government should be the least political. Cooper should veto every bill that threatens the integrity of the courts.