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A judge without a degree in law? No

If you’ve spent an afternoon watching a criminal court case or appeal, you appreciate the expansive knowledge of the law demanded of a judge. If you find yourself part of a parental rights or child custody hearing, you want the person on the bench not only to have common sense and fairness, but an acute grasp of the statutes that apply to your case.

A bill introduced last week in the N.C. House, however, would amend the state constitution so that some people currently unauthorized to practice law are eligible for the bench in North Carolina’s courts. The bill should die in the Committee on Rules, Calendar, and Operations of the House, where it currently resides.

House Bill 397, sponsored by Rep. Justin Burr of Albemarle and others, would clear a path to judgeships for sheriffs, magistrates and Superior Court clerks with 10 or more years of service, along with law enforcement officers who have at least 25 years of experience. All of the above would be eligible for election or appointment to District Court, Superior Court, the Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court.

Certainly, North Carolina is filled with smart and thoughtful clerks, magistrates and law enforcement officers. And yes, there’s a populist appeal to the image of a kindly sheriff administering justice with blend of street smarts and fairness. It worked for sheriff/judge Andy Griffith of Mayberry, right?

But capable judges need more than grounding in good sense. They must possess knowledge of the law that comes from training and education. A law degree doesn’t guarantee an effective judge – as too many bad judges have demonstrated – but HB 397 underestimates how imperative that background is when adjudicating the complex cases that pass through our state’s courtrooms.

In fact, the bill is so laughably misguided that ordinarily, it would have little chance of making it to the House floor. Long-shot bills like this are common each year, from each party. But recently, Republicans have shown a knack for pushing and passing such head-scratching legislation.

Last year, that included billboard laws (written by the billboard industry) and a bill (supported by bail bondsmen) that would have severely weakened successful Pretrial Services programs throughout the state. This year, it includes lawmakers rushing to take Charlotte’s airport without waiting to understand the implications, and also inserting themselves into local school board races by redrawing district lines.

So forgive us for not being entirely confident that lawmakers will have the good sense to let a bad bill die. We only hope they ask themselves this: If they or a family member find themselves in court, do they want a judge who thoroughly knows the law, or one who believes he or she doesn’t need to?

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