Mecklenburg County’s District Court judges and African-American leaders are pushing back on a bill that they say would inject more politics into the judicial system.
For the judges, it’s an unusual move into legislative politics. It comes after North Carolina lawmakers overrode a veto from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and made future judicial elections for District and Superior Court judges once again partisan.
Some legal observers say the changes by the Republican-led legislature are designed to get more GOP candidates elected to the Mecklenburg bench.
Mecklenburg judges, like the county’s Black Political Caucus, object to SB306. The measure, introduced by GOP Republican Sens. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius and Dan Bishop of Charlotte, would make district judges elected in the same three districts as Superior Court judges. They’re now elected countywide.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“The goal of this bill is unclear and as currently drafted it creates a number of issues that are of deep concern to the majority of the current judges,” said Regan Miller, the chief district court judge. “(T)he change that is being proposed is entirely unnecessary and does nothing to enhance or preserve the impartiality of the judiciary.”
Tarte said the new districts would mirror those in which Superior Court judges are elected. With 21 district judges elected now countywide, he said it’s hard for voters to know everybody on the ballot.
“Hopefully you want an informed electorate,” he said. “At the end of the day, this is about helping the voters be able to do their homework and make informed decisions.”
Black Caucus President Colette Forrest said the bill would result in less diversity on the bench. All three districts have more registered Democrats but the numbers in one district, 26C, make it likely to elect more Republicans.
The current countywide system has resulted in 10 African-American and 10 white judges. Ten are women. But critics worry that could change.
“I worry about the bench being not only partisan but being white and Republican,” Forrest told reporters.
The bill is the latest in a series of moves by the General Assembly that appear to weaken the notion of a nonpartisan judiciary. Last fall, legislators required the Court of Appeals to run under party labels and also changed the order of names on the ballot to put Republican candidates first. That led to a November election sweep of the GOP candidates, including the son of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican.
This month, the legislature took the further step of shrinking the appeals court by three seats, which would keep Cooper from filling the vacancies as Republican judges reach mandatory retirement age.
Now the partisan changes are reaching down to the trial court level.
Veteran Charlotte defense attorney George Laughrun says he does not recall another example of judges banding together publicly to challenge a legislative decision. He said he also opposes forcing Mecklenburg district judges to run in one of three subdivisions, as Superior Court judges already do.
“The voters ought to have a right to vote for the judges they appear in front of,” said Laughrun. Likewise, “Judges out to be accountable to the electorate they serve – not the third of the county that has the vote in a particular election.”
Charlotte attorney John Wester, former president of the N.C. Bar and a registered Republican, said discussions of the legislature’s court changes dominated conversation at a legal conference in Asheville on Friday. He said the continued injection of politics into courts “moves us farther away from the founders’ vision of our democracy.”
Two years ago, Mecklenburg Senior Resident Superior Court Bob Bell was challenged by a Republican attorney who had never tried a case, suspended his campaign three months before the election, and still received 42 percent of the vote.
“I have always believed partisan elections for the courts were wrong,” said Bell, a registered Independent approaching his 20th year on the bench. “Now, I believe that more than ever, particularly after Judge (U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil) Gorsuch made the statement that there are neither Republican nor Democratic judges. Politics does not have a place in what we do.”
Retired Superior Court Judge Richard Boner criticizes judicial elections in general, which he says are name-recognition, popularity contests akin “to running for the president of the eighth grade.”
If elections must be held, however, Boner favors the addition of political parties because it gives voters some information in races that traditionally they know little about.
He also says the elimination of the countywide vote for district judges would make it easier for judicial candidates to campaign and give Mecklenburg GOP judicial candidates a fighting chance of being elected.
“I think that’s probably one reason it’s being introduced,” said Boner, who has served on both the Superior and District court benches. “Particularly inside the city of Charlotte, Republicans have a hell of a time getting elected in a countywide race.”
In his statement, Miller, a Democrat, avoided any mention of how the proposed District Court election change would help a particular party. Instead, he said the bill was unneeded.
“The current district court bench is as diverse as it has ever been according to geography, party affiliation, race and sex,” he said. “Therefore, the change that is being proposed is entirely unnecessary, and does nothing to enhance or preserve the impartiality of the judiciary.”