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When judges go bad, transparency is key

Judges in North Carolina, by and large, are public servants of great integrity. But not always.

Charlotte-area residents don’t have to look far to know that. Take former Mecklenburg District Court Judge Bill Belk, who was banned from ever serving as a judge again after the Supreme Court found he “demonstrated willful misconduct in office.” Or former Mecklenburg Judge John Totten, who was censured, accused of throwing out a drunken-driving defendant’s alcohol level so the man would receive softer punishment than the law requires. Or former Judge Tim Smith, who was reprimanded twice by the Judicial Standards Commission for trying to help his sister in court and for berating prosecutors trying cases against his wife.

Nothing is more essential to a well-functioning judicial system than the morality and incorruptibility of judges and, importantly, the public’s belief in that. That’s why Gov. Pat McCrory should veto legislation currently sitting on his desk that undercuts the reliable system that now holds judges accountable.

House Bill 652 adds a new level of secrecy to proceedings against judges, and politicizes an approach that has operated in an effective and nonpartisan way for years. And how it was snuck through on the final day of the legislative session raises questions about its backers’ motivations.

The bill:

• Makes private certain proceedings against judges that are currently public;

• Takes away the Judicial Standards Commission’s ability to publicly reprimand judges and gives Supreme Court justices all power over disciplining judges;

• Forces Supreme Court justices to pass judgment on a Supreme Court colleague if one is accused of wrongdoing.

The Judicial Standards Commission receives about 300 complaints about judges each year. The vast majority are investigated and dismissed. When the commission pursues a case or settles with a judge by issuing a public reprimand, the proceedings are public. That engenders public trust. It would end under this legislation, and the handling of all complaints would remain confidential unless the Supreme Court made them public.

The bill also creates a potential conflict of interest for Supreme Court justices, who would essentially be put in the position of disciplining themselves. Currently, a justice facing charges has his case decided by the six most senior Court of Appeals judges.

Chief Judge John Martin of the Court of Appeals is the chairman of the Judicial Standards Commission. He wrote to legislators that the bill “will create potential conflicts of interest within our judiciary and muddle the transparency and availability of public records related to judicial misconduct.”

Twenty-nine past presidents of the N.C. Bar Association – including registered Republicans, Democrats and independents – wrote McCrory a letter this week unanimously urging him to veto the bill. The Bar has never before urged a governor’s veto.

A unanimous Supreme Court created the rules in 2006 and the system has worked well. This is another instance of fixing something that isn’t broken, apparently to benefit a few over the public at large.

The bill passed narrowly, over bipartisan opposition and by far less than a veto-proof majority. The governor should veto it immediately.

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