Politics & Government

We're voting for judges this year, but are lawmakers done changing the rules for those elections?

Attendees hold signs as they listen to discussions at a joint House - Senate committee meeting on judicial reform and redistricting held at the Legislative Office Building in downtown Raleigh on Jan. 22, 2018.
Attendees hold signs as they listen to discussions at a joint House - Senate committee meeting on judicial reform and redistricting held at the Legislative Office Building in downtown Raleigh on Jan. 22, 2018. cseward@newsobserver.com

People who want to be judges in North Carolina's many courtrooms will file as candidates from June 18 through 29.

With less than two weeks until that filing period, there is much uncertainty.

Lawmakers who have spent much of the past few years proposing changes to the courts that rule on the constitutionality of their laws are in session and as late as this week continue to propose changes to election districts for judges.

On Thursday, a federal judge presided over a bench trial in which the North Carolina Democratic Party alleged that a law abolishing the judicial primary elections this year violates its constitutional right to assemble and select its candidate of choice.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles told the attorneys after all arguments were made that she would issue her decision as quickly as she could, that she was aware of the approaching filing period and time constraints in an election year.

Republicans contend that doing away with primary elections this year for all judicial races was to give them time to consider changes to election districts in the trial courts.

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They also have said that lawmakers also wanted to consider abandoning the election of judges for a selection system that would give the legislature a prominent role in who rules in the courtrooms.

North Carolina voters would have to approve an amendment to the state Constitution to do away with the election of judges, but no proposal has been made this session to put that question on the ballot.

Lawmakers in the Senate and the House have not been able to find common ground on what, if any, changes, will be made to election districts.

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Now a committee of members from each chamber will work together to see if there is any agreement for a bill.

Meanwhile, the opening of the candidate filing period gets closer and 140 judicial races could be on the ballot this November.

Four of the races are for statewide elections — for three state Court of Appeals seats and one state Supreme Court seat.

Democrats have complained that doing away with primary elections for the statewide races could set up a scenario in which numerous candidates could run for a seat and the party would not have the ability to winnow the field to their candidate of choice. It also could mean that a candidate could be elected with less than 30 percent of the vote.

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This is the first year in decades that all judicial races will be partisan elections, a change that Republican lawmakers said was needed to give voters more information on the ballot.

At the trial on Thursday, Wayne Goodwin, chairman of the state Democratic Party, told the judge that this year, unlike others, an endorsement panel would be set up to consider candidates seeking the statewide seats.

Such a move, Goodwin said, had forced the party to shift the power from the people who usually make their choices known in primaries to party executives. Then the party will have to spend money and time trying to educate voters about the candidates endorsed by the panel.

Goodwin said he was further troubled that "on the ballot, it won't show who the endorsed candidate is."

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He noted a provision of the law doing away with primaries also allows judicial candidates to change their party affiliation up until the time of filing. Previously, candidates who filed had to be registered with a political party for at least 90 days to file as a candidate of that party.

Eagles has said in previous hearings that mischief could ensue with candidates changing their party registration on the filing day even though their political philosophies did not match the platform.

Republicans have argued that nothing in the law doing away with primary elections prevents the Democrats from holding caucuses as some states do to decide who their candidates of choice will be.

But Democrats kept coming back to the point that nothing on the ballot would signal that selection to voters.

"If this were not a partisan election for judges, this would be a different situation," Goodwin said, noting the laws adopted in 2016 and 2017 to make that change.

Eagles ruled earlier this year that the Democratic Party was likely to be successful in the case and reinstated primaries for statewide races.

But a panel of judges from the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned her ruling in a 2-1 decision.

“We conclude that at this stage of the case, appellees have not met their burden in any respect,” Judges Paul V. Neimeyer, a George H.W. Bush nominee, and Judge Stephanie D. Thacker, a Barack Obama appointee, stated in their ruling. Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, a Bill Clinton nominee, voted against it.

The judges added little else to their order, putting Eagles in a quandary at the trial. She asked attorneys how the evidence presented on Thursday was different from what they put forward in January. She asked what would be different this time, if the judges had not agreed with her previously.

Marvin Warf, an attorney representing the lawmakers, argued that nothing was different.

Edwin Speas and John Wallace, attorneys for the Democrats, disagreed.

They argued that the Democratic Party had been unduly burdened, that lawmakers could have achieved their goal of studying judicial redistricting without eliminating primary elections.

They also argued that reasons put forward by lawmakers last year had not held up in the ensuing months, pointing out that no alternative method for selecting judges had been proposed.

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