Unprecedented Court Takeover

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You would have to travel far and wide in North Carolina to find a Republican, Democrat, or Independent who thinks our court system should become more politicized. Unfortunately, we’re headed in that direction.

Our court system should be an independent branch of government, and it should be as free from politics as possible. General Assembly Republicans have acted repeatedly this year to politicize our courts and make it more and more subject to their control.

Republicans have used their legislative supermajorities to make judicial elections partisan, to shrink the size of the NC Court of Appeals, to eliminate emergency judges who can stand in for vacant judges, and to give the legislature more power over filling judicial vacancies.

Last week, Republicans called the General Assembly into a special session so that they could further this one-sided overhaul. The House passed HB 717, which threatens judicial independence by gerrymandering the districts in which the voters elect judges.

Gerrymandering means the politicians pick the judges for the people, rather than the people picking the judges. That’s a scary thought considering the judges are the public officials who can act as a check on the politicians.

When voters see crazy-looking districts they say, “That district is rigged to help someone or some group. And I know it’s not me.” It’s bad enough when they think that about legislators. Now they are going to think that about the judges?

When you combine gerrymandering with making all judicial races partisan, we may as well replace judges’ black robes with ones that are red or blue. That’s just wrong.

And the Republican court takeover is not done yet. The worst threat may be yet to come: Republicans are proposing to eliminate your ability to vote for judges altogether.

The North Carolina Constitution provides that the voters elect our judges. But Republicans in Raleigh are floating a plan to replace that system with a process where the legislature itself appoints all judges.

They will call it “merit selection,” but it’s more likely to be “crony selection.” This idea is likely to appear in a constitutional amendment to be placed on next May’s primary ballot. Which may explain one other significant bill from last week.

SB 656 included a last-minute, secret provision that eliminates all 2018 judicial primaries. This should be startling to all of us. What type of leader cancels judicial elections?
(Hint: Despots. Banana Republics. Etc.)

The Republicans likely eliminated the primary to make it harder for judges to
sue over the proposed legislative selection process. It also makes it harder for courts
to stop the judicial gerrymandering plan.

Even if the legislative appointment amendment does not become law, we’re in for a mess next November. Without primaries, every candidate who files will be on the November ballot.

That means a really long ballot, lots of candidates, and tremendous voter confusion. A candidate could win a judicial race with a very small percentage of the vote if there are a lot of candidates. The Republicans see an advantage in this.

All of these changes are troublesome for the third branch of democracy. Courts should be independent of politics. Instead, they are the latest target of bad Republican policy. But the judges are not the only victims. We all are.

We must not let the Republican legislative majorities steal our right to vote.

We must fight for a court system that is fair and apolitical. We must stand up against
judicial gerrymandering and legislative appointment of judges. You never know
when you’re going to need those courts to be fair to you.

Graig Meyer is the State Representative for House District 50, covering portions of
Orange and Durham Counties. He can be contacted at graig.meyer@ncleg.net.