A better way to pick N.C. judges

The Observer editorial board

A benefit of judicial retention elections: Fewer banjo ads for Justice Paul Newby.
A benefit of judicial retention elections: Fewer banjo ads for Justice Paul Newby.

Last November, North Carolina’s approach to electing appellate judges leaped from unfortunate to farcical. The state’s voters have been confronted with some silly judicial elections over the years, but 2014 took the prize. Nineteen candidates ran for one seat on the Court of Appeals. The winner, John Tyson, received less than a quarter of the vote. Eleven of the 19 candidates each took less than 4 percent of the vote.

The average voter, it is safe to say, had never heard of most of the candidates, much less was familiar with their capabilities on the bench. Baffled by the long list of choices, 576,087 fewer voters cast a ballot in that race than did in the U.S. Senate race pitting Thom Tillis against Kay Hagan.

Now Rep. Rob Bryan, a Charlotte Republican, and two of his colleagues are sponsoring a fix. It’s not the perfect solution, but it is a step in the right direction. The House narrowly approved the measure Tuesday (60-57 in the final vote), and the Senate should give it its backing.

Under House Bill 222, N.C. Supreme Court justices and Court of Appeals judges could choose whether to run for re-election in a traditional race or in a so-called retention election. In the retention election, a judge would be on the ballot alone for an up-or-down vote, not running against another individual. Appellate judges would still have to win their first race by being elected by voters.

If a judge wins retention, he or she serves another eight years. If the judge loses, the governor would name a replacement and voters would fill the seat in the next election.

Bryan’s bill is one way to begin to bring some sanity back to judicial elections. Those races have become increasingly partisan over the years, and millions of special-interest dollars now flow into them. The 2012 battle between Paul Newby and Sam “Jimmy” Ervin attracted millions in outside money by itself. Last year, special interests targeted Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson with misleading ads. Such partisanship will only increase under a separate, somewhat contradictory bill moving through the legislature that would make currently nonpartisan judicial races partisan.

Retention elections won’t eliminate the politics or the money. A system in which judges are appointed and later face retention elections would do more on that front. But they would likely put the brakes on the increasing political nature of these campaigns. They would do so while not taking the vote away from the people; voters would still have the right to bounce any judge they thought was not fit for office.

North Carolinians should aspire to have judges who are above politics. The independence of the judiciary is compromised when candidates are on the campaign trail making political statements and raising money from special interests. Retention elections would lessen the influence of those interests. They would also reduce the chances of having a 19-candidate race.