Justice in selecting judges

Published October 15, 2020

By Tom Campbell

Perhaps the most overlooked elections, ranking just slightly ahead of Soil and Water Conversation District Commissioners, are those of judges. This year our judicial elections may be among the most important votes we cast.
For the past ten years North Carolina has witnessed increasing instances where our appellate courts are forced to settle political arguments, especially between the Executive and Legislative branches. Sometimes these jurists are accused of “legislating from the bench,” usurping the role legislators are assigned.
Unless you are a lawyer or have business before the courts, chances are good you can’t name more than one or two District or Superior Court judges and even fewer on the Court of Appeals or Supreme Court. Many a voter will emerge from the voting booth saying they didn’t know any of the selections, so they just picked one according to which name was listed first, whether the person was a Republican or Democrat or, worse still, because they just liked the person’s name. That’s a lousy way to make important electoral decisions.
This year North Carolina voters will be asked to vote for three Supreme Court and five Court of Appeals seats. They only real requirements are that they must be licensed to practice law in our state and list whether they are registered as a Republican or Democrat. Judicial candidates are restricted from telling you how they stand on issues like abortion, Obamacare, gun control, the death penalty or other current topics.
Our state is fortunate to have had good judges who have overwhelmingly acted with wisdom and prudence. But how many times have we read columns or heard debates about the need for a better way to select our judges? The discussion usually dies because, even though citizens don’t know judicial candidates, they aren’t willing to give up their right to select them.
In the midst of a pandemic and the throes of an ugly national election, we are also watching with interest confirmation hearings for a vacant US Supreme Court seat. There’s much talk about the fairness of doing so just before the election, accompanied by charges and countercharges of packing the court. The belief is that the political affiliation or philosophical persuasion of a potential justice will make all the difference in court decisions.
North Carolina has a somewhat related conversation in our Supreme Court and Court of Appeals elections. The current makeup of the high court is 6 Democrats and 1 Republican, due to the defeat of a Republican justice in 2018 and the resignation of former Chief Justice Mark Martin (Republican) in January of 2019. Governor Cooper appointed a Democrat to replace Martin as Chief, giving that court the 6 to 1 margin. Republicans claim we have a “stacked court” and decisions are pro-Democratic. They want more balance. Our Court of Appeals currently has 8 Democrats and 7 Republicans and both parties are wanting to gain an edge.
You are now the judge judging the judges. These elections have consequences and we strongly encourage you to get to know the men and women seeking the bench. The State Board of Elections has published an excellent guide with pictures and bios of each candidate in our two appellate courts. For the sake of justice please review them before you vote: https://www.ncsbe.gov/mailers/2020/judicial-voter-guide/candidate-profiles.