The end of non-partisan judicial elections?

By Scott Mooneyham | Feb 05, 2013

RALEIGH -- For at least a couple of decades, how North Carolinians choose judges has been the subject of legislation pending before the General Assembly.

In 2002, the Democratic-controlled legislature dropped partisan labels from candidates seeking election to the state Court of Appeals and state Supreme Court.

This year, the Republican-controlled legislature may reverse that 10-year-old change, making party affiliation again a part of voters' selection process.

Two Republican senators, Thom Goolsby of Wilmington and Jerry Tillman of Randolph County, have filed a bill to add the Republican and Democratic designations back to the ballot. Their bill would also add party labels to Superior Court and District Court judicial candidates.

Republicans say the Democrats' motive in dropping party affiliation was purely political in the first place, that they made the move because voters increasingly favored Republican judges.

Democrats say the change came because of a notion that judges, and the law, should be above politics.

Republicans have the stronger case. Judicial elections, and the balance on the state's appellate courts, were clearly moving in the Republicans' favor when Democratic legislative leaders decide to establish non-partisan elections.

Democrats had years to make a change, for the same reasons, and never made non-partisan judicial races a priority until threatened with Republican control of the courts.

Still, who would deny that judges should be above partisan politics?

It is also true that, for years, state leaders -- Democrats and Republicans -- chattered about other ways to make for better selection of judges.

Legislators of both parties filed bills involving gubernatorial appointment, merit selection or retention elections, where judges run against their own records and voters decide to either keep them or toss them off the bench.

Former Gov. Beverly Perdue even signed an executive order to create a panel that would make recommendations to her before she made the temporary appointments that are used to fill vacancies on the courts. (Republicans made some hay of Perdue's decision to drop the executive order as she filled a final state Supreme Court vacancy just before leaving office.)

A lot of this chatter and legislative maneuvering would not be taking place if North Carolina's current selection process was a good one.

Most voters don't a lot about the candidates in judicial races. The state produces a voters guide, but in a busy world, only so many people see the publication.

The result is that the candidates enjoy a distinct advantage if they are first on the ballot, if they have a vanilla, Anglo-Saxon-sounding name or if they are woman.

Adding the partisan labels back to the ballot may change some of that.

It doesn't mean that a partisan label is going to imbue voters with the knowledge needed to avoid pushing a button in an election booth while knowing next to nothing about a candidate.

It also won't prevent judicial elections from becoming money pits of special interest dollars that undermine public confidence in an independent judiciary.