To name a new judge to the state’s second highest court for the next eight years, we are going to close our eyes and randomly pull a name out of a hat.
John Martin, the chief judge of the N.C. Court of Appeals, retired Aug. 1. Nineteen people – 19! – want to succeed him. All 19 will appear on the November ballot and winner takes all – even if it’s with 6 percent of the vote. And even if it’s someone who is completely incompetent.
But there’s no danger of that, because N.C. voters will diligently study the backgrounds of all 19 candidates and select the most qualified. Right? Yeah, we doubt it too.
This is a laughable way to fill such an important position and the legislature needs to change the law to prevent it from happening again.
Martin, for reasons unknown, retired after this spring’s and summer’s primaries with two years left on his term. State law requires, then, that there be no primary, and all the candidates advance to the general election. The leading vote-getter becomes an appellate judge, no matter how small his percentage.
Even in the best of circumstances, the typical voter knows little about judicial candidates. Name recognition is the biggest factor in many people’s votes. But to expect even the most civic-minded voters to research 19 candidates for one judicial race is beyond optimistic. They will instead take a shot in the dark, and some fortunate lottery winner will don a black robe.
The situation could affect other judicial races as well. Imagine a voter getting toward the bottom of a long ballot and seeing 19 unfamiliar names for Martin’s seat, along with four Supreme Court races, two other contested appeals court races and a slew of district and superior court races. A rational person might just skip over them all and move on with her life, leaving the courts’ fates in the hands of an even smaller percentage of voters.
This turn of events is rare but not unheard of, and is just one more example of the flaws inherent in electing judges. Voters should be more concerned now than ever about the process; North Carolina has joined those states where millions of out-of-state special-interest dollars flow in to try to elevate a favored candidate to the state’s highest courts. It will get harder and harder for constituents to believe that their cases are being heard by truly impartial justices.
There is a better way. A number of states appoint their justices, some with retention elections. At a minimum, and more immediately, the legislature can fix the law that has candidates leaping for Martin’s seat – and voters’ heads spinning.