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Appointing judges could work, if it’s done right

RALEIGH — In next year’s election, you might find yourself picking dozens of judges on an insanely long ballot. Or you might never vote in a multiple candidate judicial election ever again.

Legislative leaders are considering a wide range of options for overhauling how North Carolina chooses its judges — from the state Supreme Court to the local District Court judge who deals with your traffic ticket case.

The overhaul will be the topic of a rare January session of the House and Senate. So far, lawmakers have said they might force judges to run for election every two years, or they might create a system where judges are appointed by state leaders instead of being elected.

Understandably, Democrats fear the goal is to “rig the judiciary” by putting more Republicans on the bench.

The House has already approved a judicial redistricting plan that addresses imbalances in the sizes of District and Superior Court districts, while creating more districts where Republicans could win. Then on Oct. 17, two key Republican leaders in both chambers unveiled a proposal to elect all judges every two years — far shorter terms than the four- to eight-year terms used now.

The latter proposal appears to be in response to Republican legislators courtroom losses over controversial laws. Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, said in a news release that it stems from complaints “about judges legislating from the bench.”

Some say the two-year term proposal is intended to make judges, who likely don’t want to spend more time running for re-election, support a far different approach. Senate leaders want to consider a judicial appointment system, which would put some combination of the legislature, the governor and a group of legal experts in charge of picking judges. Voters might still have a role, but it would be through retention elections where they’d decide to keep or reject an incumbent judge — without any other choices on the ballot.

“One thing I think most folks agree on is elections are not necessarily the best way to pick judges,” Senate leader Phil Berger’s chief of staff, Jim Blaine, said in a recent interview with Spectrum News. Every diligent voter has struggled to research judicial candidates at election time. They typically offer vague platitudes like “I will uphold the law,” and so many voters simply use endorsements from their political party — injecting partisanship into an office that shouldn’t be political. Other voters opt for the judicial candidate with the funniest name, or one that shares their gender or race.

While they plan to appoint a committee on the topic soon, Senate leaders have been quiet about the judicial appointment systems they’re considering. That evasiveness has prompted some irresponsible speculation by Democrats, who have stoked outrage by saying the GOP wants to put the legislature solely in charge of picking judges.

Blaine insists that’s not the case, and he outlined two possible options in the Spectrum News interview.

One, similar to a 1995 bill backed by then-Sen. Roy Cooper, would have the governor nominate judges, who’d then be confirmed by the legislature. At the end of a judge’s term, voters would decide whether to give them a second term. If they reject the incumbent, the appointment process would begin again.

The second system described by Blaine starts the process with “some sort of commission that vets the qualifications” and sends recommendations to the legislature. The legislature would narrow that list to a few candidates for the governor to choose from, with retention elections at the end of each judge’s term.

An appointment system with strong checks and balances could help take politics out of the judiciary. Appointing judges isn’t unusual or anti-democratic: Our neighbors in South Carolina and Virginia have always had the legislature in charge of picking judges, and they haven’t turned into banana republics.

But for the change to work, Democrats and Republicans have to stop focusing on which system will put the most members of their party in the courtroom. They’ll need to take time, gather plenty of input from the public, and — dare I hope for this? — actually attempt a little bipartisan cooperation.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service.

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