D.G. Martin: Small towns, courts and independent thinkers

Published 11:25 pm Wednesday, March 29, 2017

“I have to vote to break a tie on town council’s votes all the time,” the mayor of a small North Carolina mountain town told a friend.

“When they deadlock it is a 3 to 3 vote, with the same people always voting together.”

When asked if it were a Democrat versus Republican situation, the mayor explained that political parties have nothing to do with it. “Three of them are Methodist, and the other three are Baptist. They just stick together no matter what the issue.”

What denominational preference might have to do with where to put a stoplight, how much to pay the police chief, where to extend water lines, what streets to pave, or the hundreds of small but important decisions his local government has to make, the mayor did not try to explain. Being a Methodist or a Baptist would not seem to matter much, but it did.

The loyalty of these town board members to their religious colleagues robs the town of the benefit of the individual and collective experience and wisdom that council members could apply to working out pragmatic approaches to the town’s non-sectarian municipal challenges.

Such local government decision-making should not be handicapped by religious doctrine and loyalties.

Similarly, a small-town government can often do better if its elected leaders face challenges and work together without regard to political party affiliations.

Of course, even in these days of ugly partisan division, both at the national and state level, our two-party political system plays an important and constructive role in government. It fosters accountability, provides leadership pathways for potential public officials and gives the possibility of regular changes in leadership.

But, imposing two-party partisan elections and divisions on small local governmental units can be counterproductive.

For instance, in making a decision about whether to run for local office, a moderate independent-minded pragmatist might be unwilling to align with either of the two major political parties to get on the ballot. While it is theoretically possible for a registered independent or unaffiliated voter to find a place on the ballot, the complicated petition requirements make it nearly impossible.

Almost 30 percent of North Carolina voters are registered as independents. Whatever their talents and potential contributions, they are effectively disqualified from serving in any office selected in partisan elections.

That is too bad for small local governments.

It is now even worse for North Carolina’s courts, thanks to our General Assembly’s recent action that makes all judicial elections partisan.

Rationalizing their action, legislative leaders explained that voters were entitled to know the political affiliations of candidates for the judiciary.

True, the political registration of judicial candidates would always be a matter of public record and be reported to voters during an election.

Most judges say they put aside their politics when they put on their judicial robes. They say their decisions are guided by the law, not by their political party affiliations or platforms. Good judgment, wisdom, experience and the law, not political party, should guide judges presiding over criminal cases, business disputes, divorce and custody issues and the hundreds of other matters that make their way into our courts.

Supporters of the legislature’s actions remind us that politics has always played some role in judicial selection. They are correct. But this history does not make expanding the political role a good thing, at least not for those who would like to keep politics out of the courtroom.

If we want to encourage fair-minded, independent-thinking lawyers to consider seeking a judge’s position, why prevent good lawyers who are registered independents?

If you, like me, do not have an answer to this question, ask your legislator.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.