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Legislation would give governor autonomy to fill District Court vacancies

In a potential expansion of the governor’s powers, the GOP-controlled legislature did away Friday with a long-standing requirement that vacancies on District Court be filled from a list of nominees selected by the local bar.

Under the new legislation, the governor can ignore the recommendations and appoint whomever he wants.

Sponsors slipped the measure into an unrelated bill about medical care for prisoners, and the Senate passed it late Thursday. To become law, it must be signed by Gov. Pat McCrory.

“I’ve always felt that the bar, which is not elected, should not be able to tie the hands of the governor, who is elected,” said Sen. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, who practices law in Kings Mountain and voted for the change. “Having lawyers handpick who the next judge is going to be is a little bit like the fox guarding the hen house.”

Moore said he realized the vote broke down largely on party lines, with most Republicans supporting it and most Democrats opposed.

But, he said, “If there was a Democratic governor in office, I would still vote the same way.”

The vote came at 9:38 p.m. Thursday, with the General Assembly only hours from adjournment. It surprised many people who thought the issue had been tabled.

“Dismayed” is how a District Court judge in Charlotte responded when told the news.

“A terrible bill,” said Rep. Rick Glazer, D-Cumberland, who teaches at Campbell University law school. “It politicizes the process.”

His biggest concern, Glazer said, is that a governor will be swayed by a lawyer’s political contributions, rather than the lawyer’s qualifications to be a judge.

Attorney Tricia Derr, who heads the Mecklenburg County Bar, said she believes lawyers who make up the local bars are best suited to “accurately, objectively and candidly” evaluate potential nominees.

Under current law, if there’s a vacancy on District Court, the local bar elects three nominees and the governor must pick one of the nominees.

Under the new legislation, the local bar must select five nominees, if possible, and the governor must “give due consideration” to the recommendations.

The law does not require the governor to choose one of the nominees.

“It takes away the input or authority to some degree of those who know the most,” said Derr, who noted that she was speaking for herself, not the bar as a whole. “Most lawyers would agree: We don’t care whether you’re Republican, Democratic, Libertarian or unaffiliated.”

It’s up to governor now

Charlotte lawyer John Wester, an outspoken advocate for merit selection of judges, said he thought the current system has produced excellent judges.

“I think of an analogy here,” he said. “If a member of my family was headed to heart surgery tomorrow at Carolinas Medical Center, I would like to know that the chief of the cardiovascular team was screened by fellow cardiologists.”

But Wester said he respects the value in giving the governor autonomy, and he said he thought it would be rare for a governor to choose someone other than a nominee.

District Court judges generally rule on civil disputes of $10,000 or less, misdemeanor criminal cases and most traffic cases. They preside over alimony disputes, child support, child custody, divorce, equitable distribution and juvenile cases.

The N.C. Bar Association took no position on the bill because it came up late in the session, said president Alan Duncan, a Greensboro lawyer.

“It would be my personal belief that continuing with the (current) approach, which balances the input by the legal professionals with knowledge of the capabilities of the potential candidates combined with the wisdom of the governor, has served North Carolina very well in the past,” Duncan said.

“It’s not clear why they would need to change an approach that has served us well over time.”

McCrory, in Charlotte Friday, said that he hadn’t yet seen the bill. He said it’s in a stack of legislation on his desk, awaiting his signature.

Staff writer David Perlmutt contributed.

Leland: 704-358-5074
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