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Partisan election change will affect local judges

By Josh Bergeron

josh.bergeron@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Judicial races rarely make headlines, but this year state legislators made a notable change to the way candidates for district and superior court will appear on ballots for years to come.

Mostly along party lines, the state legislature this month overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto to a bill to reenact partisan judicial races. Now law, the change means district and superior court judges will face the same primary process as other elected offices. Potential candidates who are registered as unaffiliated will need to secure signatures from thousands of voters before appearing on the ballot during a general election.

In 2018, for example, District Court Judge Charlie Brown, registered as unaffiliated, would either need to pick a political party or secure roughly 4,600 signatures to appear on the ballot. Brown is the only local district or superior court judge who’s currently registered as unaffiliated and has a term that ends in 2018.

Brown said he wasn’t fully informed about the change and declined to comment about partisan judicial races.

Other judges questioned whether the partisan change is needed.

Former Superior Court Judge John Holshouser used a comparison to make his point.

“I don’t think that partisan elections have anything to do with judicial philosophy,” Holshouser said. “A man might be conservative about wanting to pay his light bill, but that doesn’t mean he is going to send someone to the gas chamber or electric chair.”

Asked about the change, Chief Superior Court Judge Anna Mills Wagoner also questioned how helpful such a move would be.

“I know in smaller districts — Rowan County being one of them — voters know all the judges pretty well,” she said. “I do not know that in smaller districts, such as ours, that a party affiliation beside a judge’s name is going to be great deal of help to voters in learning a judge’s philosophy and qualifications.”

She said the affiliation may be of some benefit in more populated areas, appellate or superior courts and for candidates who haven’t served as judges previously. In larger districts, however, she said some judges may lose an election only because of political affiliation.

When judicial candidates face a primary in 2018, it won’t be the first time. Local judicial races were partisan until 1998. For example, Brown, a Democrat at the time, won a 1998 district court race against David B. Wilson, a Republican. It was the only contested judicial race that year.

Since 1998, judicial races haven’t explicitly involved partisan politics, but Democrats and Republicans usually choose preferred candidates listed on handbills passed out at polls. In the most recent, contested court race, Democrats endorsed Judge James Randolph, running for his first term. Ted Blanton ran against Randolph and touted his Republican affiliation.

If the same matchup occurred in 2018, voters wouldn’t need a handbill to know the political affiliation of both men. Randolph would be listed as a Democrat. Blanton would be registered as a Republican.

Holshouser said he hasn’t served with any judge whose partisan affiliation has affected decisions in a discernible way. Voters often “have no earthly idea who the judges are,” he said. Holshouser said he doesn’t know whether political party is the best way to solve the problem.

In his veto message, Gov. Roy Cooper said judges “make tough decisions on child abuse, divorce, property disputes, drunk driving, domestic violence and other issues that should be free from politics.” Cooper said he was concerned judges registered unaffiliated would face a difficult path to getting on the ballot.

When legislators voted earlier this month to override Cooper’s veto, it received support from Rowan County’s senators and representatives. Asked about the change last week, Rep. Carl Ford, R-76, reiterated his support by saying it would give voters more information than might be available otherwise. A political affiliation may not provide much information about how a judge would handle minor cases, he said. That could change in major cases, Ford said.

“If it is life or death, you want someone to be strict on the law, law and order,” Ford said.

Ford said the judicial guide usually sent out by the Board of Elections doesn’t provide much useful information.

He said Brown is an “excellent man and an excellent judge,” but would need to secure the appropriate amount of signatures if he wanted to run as unaffiliated.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.

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