Who’ll judge the judges?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 1, 2013

Anyone who doesn’t believe in life after death must not have followed bills in the N.C. Legislature this session. We had, for example, repeated attempts to resurrect a bill that would have given county commissions control over local school buildings. Now, we see that lawmakers revived another bad measure that would erode transparency in the way complaints against judges are handled, while vesting too much self-regulatory power in the N.C. Supreme Court.
As is often the case with suspect legislation, H652 has a murky history. It began as a bill about appeal procedures in family court. Then it mutated into a measure titled “An act to modify the law regarding discipline for judges.” Only a week ago, it was rejected in the N.C. Senate by a bipartisan group concerned about transparency issues. Then 11 GOP senators switched votes, and the bill passed. On the session’s final day, it sailed through the House and now awaits the governor’s action. He should bury it for good.
There was no great outcry for these changes. No group of judges visited the legislature to complain. No lawyers petitioned for revision. It’s a solution in search of a problem.
Under rules in effect since 2007, members of the Judicial Standards Commission — judges, attorneys and lay people — have had the responsibility of reviewing complaints against judges. If it investigated and found judicial misbehavior, the commission could issue a public reprimand or, in more serious cases, recommend that the N.C. Supreme Court censure, suspend or remove a judge. In any event, the hearings and related documents were public record.
Not under the new law, however. It strips away the commission’s power to issue public reprimands. Instead, it can issue only a private “letter of caution.” All other disciplinary matters involving judges will be handled by the Supreme Court, and the case records will remain confidential unless the court takes action. In other words, the public will be denied information about allegations against the judges it elects, except for cases where the Supreme Court chooses to act.
In another step backward, the measure basically gives justices oversight of themselves. Previously, disciplinary cases against justices were considered by a panel of Court of Appeals judges. Now, the Supreme Court itself will review complaints made against its own members. That’s a conflict-of-interest controversy waiting to erupt.
This bill passed with too little explanation or public scrutiny. It reduces transparency. It strips power from an independent commission, while making justices arbiters of their own behavior. It bears the mark of behind-the-scenes political maneuvering that compromises the integrity of the judicial system.
As of Wednesday, the measure was on Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk. His verdict should be a swift veto.