Should judicial races be partisan?

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 14, 2011

By Karissa Minn
A proposed state bill that would make North Carolina’s judicial elections partisan has sparked debate about the role of politics on the bench.
N.C. Sen. Andrew Brock, a Republican who represents Rowan and Davie counties, is co-sponsoring legislation that would once again allow judicial candidates to identify with a political party and include them in partisan primary elections.
Since 2002, no party affiliations appear on the ballot for Supreme Court justices and Court of Appeals, Superior Court and District Court judges.
“I know just from talking to people that because those races are not partisan, people don’t have an idea of which judge is who,” Brock said. “It’s not really a high-profile position, and you don’t know their view on a lot of issues. If you know if they’re a Democrat or Republican, you kind of know how they’ll probably vote most of the time, or how they’ll lean on issues most of the time.”
People often don’t know who judicial candidates are or what they believe in, Brock said, so they make choices based on limited information or simply don’t vote. He said he sometimes has difficulty himself keeping track of nonpartisan candidates.
Brock said he helped run the 2002 campaign of former state Supreme Court justice Bob Orr as an unpaid manager and consultant. He said judicial races are becoming more and more expensive as judges try to raise enough money to win elections. Some of this money, he said, comes from special interest groups.
“It’s not really nonpartisan,” Brock said. “Each political party made a concerted effort to help the judicial candidates… They were saying, ‘These are the Republicans on the ballot and these are the Democrats on the ballot.’ ”
If North Carolina returns to a partisan election system, judicial candidates would lose public financing but gain the support of political parties.
Darrin Jordan, a North Carolina State Bar councilor in Rowan County, said the judges he’s spoken to think it is more difficult to campaign when their elections are partisan.
“They have a difficult time going out as judges and campaigning, and still accepting this (standard) that they’re impartial,” Jordan said. “It places a judge in that position of having to identify with a particular agenda when the sole goal of the job is to be fair and impartial.”
Jordan said he is speaking for himself, not the state bar, which has not taken a position on the topic.
If campaign cost is an issue, he said, one option is to change to a system where the governor would appoint judges and justices and the public would hold elections to retain them. North Carolina is one of 22 states in the country that elects its judges.
Parties already make efforts to inform voters of who is on their side of the political aisle, Jordan said. He added that a judge’s political party doesn’t have as much of an influence on his or her rulings as people think, and he believes all local judges try to be fair and equal when following the law.
“Someone might be thinking that being liberal means that individual less likely to punish the guilty, or that a conservative person is more likely to be harsher on punishment,” he said. “But if someone spent 15 minutes in our court system and didn’t know the party of a judge, I don’t think they could distinguish what party they’re in.”
Both the Senate bill and an identical House bill passed first reading and were sent to committee about a month ago.
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.