Legislators to judges: You better watch your back

The Observer editorial board

Mike Morgan was elected to an eight-year term on the North Carolina Supreme Court last year. Now legislators want to cut his term – and all judges’ – to two years.
Mike Morgan was elected to an eight-year term on the North Carolina Supreme Court last year. Now legislators want to cut his term – and all judges’ – to two years. tlong@newsobserver.com

The latest proposal out of Raleigh to mess with the judiciary is so absurd as to be almost comforting; surely nothing so detrimental to the courts would actually come to pass.

Yet we’ve learned to take this legislature seriously and literally, so North Carolinians should know about this idea while it’s in its infancy and tell lawmakers what they think.

Sen. Bill Rabon, a Republican from Southport, last week filed Senate Bill 698. The bill proposes a constitutional amendment that would cut all regular judges’ terms – from the N.C. Supreme Court to district court judges – to two years. Currently all judges and justices serve eight-year terms, except district court judges, who serve four-year terms. The amendment would also end all 400-plus current judges’ terms in 2018, including those who were elected to eight-year terms less than a year ago.

Why should you care about something as obscure as the length of judges’ terms?

This might be legislators’ worst idea yet in their campaign to remake North Carolina’s court system, and that’s saying something. Few moves undercut the reality and the appearance of fair and impartial judges like having them run for office every two years. That would make them permanent campaigners – and year-round fundraisers – much like legislators are now.

Judges are not meant to be politicians. They are not meant to have their decisions influenced by the whim of the voters. They serve the Constitution and the rule of law, and must be insulated just enough to do so.

Maybe that’s why no state Supreme Court in the nation has two-year terms. Maybe that’s why leading judges of both parties came out quickly against Rabon’s proposal, including Republican Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin and former Republican Supreme Court justices Bob Edmunds and Bob Orr (who is a contributing editor to the Observer).

Rabon titled his bill “Increase voter accountability of judges.” It would increase it so much they would hardly be accountable to the law. The bill should instead be entitled, “Increase legislative intimidation of judges.”

It’s possible Republicans in the Senate intend to pass this bill with the goal of cutting judges’ terms to two years. It’s more likely that they are sending a message to justices and judges: Watch yourself. Rule the way we want – and you haven’t been – or your career could be at stake.

Rep. David Lewis told North Carolina Public Radio that the thinking behind the bill was, “if you’re going to act like a legislator, perhaps you should run like one.”

It’s just legislators’ latest effort to politicize the courts. They made all judicial races partisan and canceled all judicial primary elections. And they plan to gerrymander judicial districts the way they have legislative and congressional districts. Senate leader Phil Berger this week created a select committee on judicial reform that could either produce smart reforms or craft more mischief.

The only thing as bad as making judges run for office every two years would be for legislators to appoint the judges themselves. And that might be next on their agenda.