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Secrecy on judicial discipline is wrong

The N.C. legislature stumbled badly when lawmakers approved a bill last year that shrouds in secrecy the state’s process for disciplining judges. The public deserves more information, not less, on the professional conduct of the people we elect to render legal judgments. This new law erects inappropriate and unnecessary barriers to attaining that knowledge.

The state’s Judicial Standards Commission, which leads the work to investigate judges when questions about their conduct are lodged, objected to the change. So did numerous other current and former judges, including Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Parker and the past 30 presidents of the N.C. Bar Association. The state Bar, which asked the governor to veto the bill, rightly noted the past discipline process for judges had always been fair and was correctly opened up at the stage when charges were found to be warranted.

The open process assured “transparency for the Commission’s work, and... enhances the public’s confidence in the accountability of our judiciary,” wrote then-association president Michael Wells Sr.

We agree. The Judicial Standards Commission work was conducted in secret until a committee had determined that there was sufficient evidence against a judge to merit sanction or punishment. Then the charges were made public. A different panel would conduct a hearing and make any recommendations about punishment beyond a “public reprimand” to the state’s Supreme Court.

Given how this law was enacted, neither transparency nor accountability were on the minds of lawmakers. The bill started out as legislation to tweak when a child born out of wedlock can receive an inheritance from the proven father. It unanimously passed the House, but when it got to the Senate, a committee stripped out the inheritance language and rewrote the bill as an act to “modify” judicial discipline. The full committee voted against it. But seven days later, it passed the committee with more Republican members present. The bill was approved in the House – 54 to 47 – with 11 Republicans joining Democrats in opposition.

Under the new law, the commission still investigates and holds hearings, but nothing is made public until the state’s high court approves a punishment. Additionally, the commission can no longer issue public reprimands, which had been the most frequent way that charges of misconduct were resolved. Now, the high court must decide that, too.

What’s more, the law bizarrely requires the Supreme Court to handle allegations against its own members. A panel of senior judges from the state’s Court of Appeals would have done that previously.

Rep. Paul Stam, R-Apex, and a lawyer, was a major sponsor of the bill. He dismissed concerns last year by saying it made sense to put the Supreme Court in charge: “That’s why we call it ‘supreme,’ ” he said.

Republican Sen. Tom Apodaca, who heads the powerful Rules Committee, though, offered a better assessment last year: “Sounds like lawyers protecting lawyers,” he said. It does.

The public was badly served by this new law. When legislators meet in May, they should change it.

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