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N.C. judicial elections will be partisan following legislature's override of Cooper's veto

Senator Floyd B. McKissick, Jr. 

Senator Floyd B. McKissick, Jr. 

N.C. judges will soon run for office in partisan elections after the state Senate overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of House Bill 100 last Thursday.

The law marks a return to a judicial election system present before the early 2000s. District and Superior Court judgeships will become partisan and be required to run in party primaries — after the General Assembly voted to make appellate judgeships partisan in December. The top Democrat and the top Republican judges will then compete in a general election.

The current election process is nonpartisan, meaning all judges run together in the same election irrespective of party. But even in the current system, certain judicial elections feature party labels on the ballot, said Robert Joyce, a professor at the UNC School of Government. 

The bill will take effect starting Jan. 1, 2018. It was the first bill Cooper had vetoed, and it was later overridden by Republican supermajorities in the N.C. House and Senate.

Cooper said he vetoed the bill for fear of further intensification of party politics.

“North Carolina wants its judges to be fair and impartial, and partisan politics has no place on the judges’ bench,” Cooper said in a veto message. “We need less politics in the courtroom, not more.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said in a statement he is pleased with the law because he believes the system will increase voter participation in judicial elections.

“For years, Gov. Cooper and his allies have stoked fears of voter disenfranchisement — yet when he had the opportunity to actually increase voter involvement, he rejected a measure that the data suggests would do just that,” Berger said.

Steven Greene, a political science professor at N.C. State University, said the new system could increase participation because many people currently do not have enough information to vote in judicial elections. But he added that fewer, more-informed voters may be preferable.

“You could make an equally valid argument that it’s better to have fewer people participating, but doing it based upon more appropriate criteria — like who the judge actually is and what their experience is,” he said.

N.C. Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, voted against the bill and worries judges might feel beholden to vote along party lines rather than objectively ruling. He also expressed criticism towards the argument that voters want partisan elections.

“I can honestly say to you that in the last decade, nobody has called me saying, ‘Sen. McKissick, you know what we need to do? We need to make these judgeships partisan,’” he said.

McKissick said he views the law as an attempt to insert more Republicans into the political pipeline. He said GOP leaders believe that judges running with an “R” next to their name will benefit the party in the current political environment.

Joyce said Republicans instigated the change to partisan elections because they have recently fared better than Democrats in statewide elections. Yet he said there is a potential for partisan elections to bring more extreme judicial candidates to the forefront.

“We have seen in other, clearly partisan elections that there has been something of a move to the extremes in the party primaries," he said. "Middle of the road candidates have had a harder way of getting elected in recent years. I don’t know what effect that will have on the judiciary — I hope none.”

According to the American Bar Association, partisan judicial elections are quite rare in America. Only eight states hold partisan elections for all general jurisdiction trial court judges, and only seven states do so for high court judges.

Greene said the newly partisan elections are a step in the wrong direction for fair rulings.

“Judges should not be politicians,” he said. “The more we make judges politicians, I think the worse the implications for justice are.”

Greene added that the mere fact that judges run for elections compromises the objectivity of judicial rulings.

“I don’t think we should encourage our voters or our democracy to think about our judgeships in a Democratic or Republican way,” he said. “You want somebody who’s just going to be as fair as possible in terms of judging the law — I don’t see how whether someone is a Republican or Democrat really should be relevant to that.”

Though this marks the first veto override in Cooper’s term, it is likely the first of many showdowns between the governor and the General Assembly, said McKissick.

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“Will there be other showdowns and battles? Absolutely," he said. "It’s simply a matter of time. But I hope and trust the governor will veto those bills that are inconsistent with his views even if they are overridden.”