Why it's good that judges are on the ballot in North Carolina

Published October 1, 2020

By Ray Nothstine

North Carolinians will see a dizzying number of judges on their ballot for the 2020 election. There are three State Supreme Court races and there are NC Appeals Court matchups along with District Court judge races. The top race pits Democrat Cheri Beasley against Republican Paul Newby for chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Judges are labeled by party ID but beyond that, it can seem overwhelming to get a clear view of an individual judge’s worldview or even a judicial philosophy. Still, having judges on the ballot is good for North Carolina. There have been movements to nix elections and make judicial positions appointed. A few years back, former NC Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin pushed to have judges selected (and not elected) based on what he called a merit system. However, while it sounds good in theory, this takes the power out of the hands of the voter and empowers center-left groups like the American Bar Association or other advocacy groups to heavily influence appointments.

In a 2017 editorial, I noted that Vanderbilt Law Professor Brian T. Fitzpatrick makes an important point that the appointment system tends to turn the courts into closer alignment with the ideological preferences of the bar and not necessarily the people — who tend to skew more conservative. Fitzpatrick points out that judges that are appointed are just as partisan and in a manner that tends to be less reflective of the general population.

The Federalist Society has a great overview of some of the best arguments for judicial elections and empowering the people to be the guardians of the rule of law and their own liberties. Thomas Jefferson, a famed opponent of judicial activism himself, was adamant in his view that liberty ultimately rests with the people.

That’s an important point in our state as we have seen the erosion of legislative powers through judicial activism time and time again. Conservatives have been frustrated by Gov. Roy Cooper and others in this state who continually sidestep the legislature to enact their own agenda. One glaring example is how the judiciary was utilized to halt the implementation of a voter-approved constitutional amendment requiring voter I.D. even though it passed the legislature and by a statewide vote in 2018. The decisions to halt voter I.D. stymied the will of the people through their legislators and then more overtly by dismissing the vote altogether.

Take time to familiarize yourself with your ballot and research judges. There are websites like BallotReady that are a good starting point. Greater civic engagement and education on judicial elections is one of the best ways to expand bedrock principles like the separation of powers, expanding property rights, and championing our state constitution.

Given that many judges are acting as legislators, these judicial races are easily some of the most important decisions on a North Carolina ballot in 2020.