NC General Assembly weighs changes to judicial elections

Legislators on Monday supported both old and new ways for North Carolina appellate court judges to earn eight-year terms on the bench.

The full House gave its final approval to a measure that would make elections for Supreme Court justices and Court of Appeals judges officially partisan affairs again. They’ve been officially nonpartisan since the 2004 elections. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Earlier in the day, a House judiciary committee endorsed legislation allowing these justices and judges initially elected to their positions to stand for an up-or-down election the next time they are scheduled on the ballot. It’s called a retention election, and only the incumbent’s name would be on the ballot.

The judge would get re-elected if a majority of people vote for the judge. Otherwise, the judge must step down, and the governor would fill the vacancy with someone until the next statewide election in two years. The retention election is optional, however, and the judge still can run in conventional elections. The judge must make an official decision the year before.

The retention election idea has been working its way around the legislature over the past 25 years or so. Many attorneys and judges would prefer to stop running in elections similar to those for governor and other statewide elections. Other bills have focused upon creating a more formal process to fill vacancies or changing the state constitution.

No constitutional change is required for the bill sponsored by Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, who said he’s not sure about the ultimate prospects of the measure, with the House floor its next stop. The bill, he said, in part responds to the large amounts of campaign money in statewide judicial elections. Critics have said it leaves the impression with the public that money could influence how justice is meted out.

“I do think that people are beginning to get weary about seeing millions of dollars spent in electing a member of the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals, and I think people are beginning to think that’s unhealthy,” Daughtry said.

The bill returning appellate court elections to partisan races was approved by a vote of 70-47. It would require the candidates to run with their party affiliation on the ballots, as well as for them to run in partisan primaries if two or more candidates from the same party file for the job.

Republicans running the bill argue the labels will give voters more information about the candidates’ judicial philosophies and could boost turnout. Critics – mostly Democrats – counter that voters don’t want more partisanship, especially from those people that decide on the constitutional of laws.

(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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