On Thursday, the N.C. House voted in favor of partisan statewide judicial elections. This measure would introduce partisan primaries for judges and place party labels next to the names of judicial candidates on the ballot. I write to explain why I believe this legislation represents a serious misstep.
The reason for the change, according to the bill’s sponsor, is that voters need to know “something about the judges.” Unfortunately, voters do too often lack basic information about judicial candidates. Unlike other candidates for high office, judicial candidates often lack substantial resources to advertise and campaign. Nor can they have platforms or take positions on controversial issues, because they are ethically bound not to prejudge cases that may come before them.
But partisan elections are not the solution to this difficult problem. Membership in a political party does not determine whether someone would make a good judge. Judges hear and decide cases under the law as it is – not what they think it should be, based on their Republican or Democratic political views. And in almost all cases, there is no “Republican” or “Democratic” side. What is the relevance of political party to a breach of contract case, a domestic violence episode, the custody of a child, the division of a marital estate, a disputed will, or the setting of a prison term?
In addition to providing voters with no relevant information, the proposed change would inject more politics into the judicial process. As Founding Father Alexander Hamilton explained, introducing “personal and party attachments and enmities” into the judiciary fails to “advance the interests of justice or the public good.” So it is here. A fine judge is defined by his or her independence, fairness, neutrality and wisdom. These characteristics have nothing to do with political party, and to imply that they are secondary to the (R) or (D) next to a judge’s name on the ballot does them a disservice.
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Were I to run for judge in a partisan election, I would identify myself as Republican. Doing so would implicitly promise those evaluating my candidacy that I bear allegiance to my party’s political precepts, and would decide cases accordingly. The presence of this label would create the misperception that I am beholden to the party that nominated and helped elect me, harming the perceived fairness and impartiality essential to our judicial process.
How, then, can we provide voters with information actually relevant to the election of judicial candidates? One way would be to have judicial candidates nominated by a non-partisan commission, then submitted to the people for election. Judges would remain accountable to the people (as they are now), but citizens could feel confident that the commission had prevented unqualified candidates from being nominated.
We can also do a better job of making relevant information available to voters within our current system of electing judges. One important step has been the North Carolina Bar Association’s Judicial Performance Evaluation Survey, which summarizes information collected from attorneys who appear regularly before our state’s judiciary. We should continue to make every effort to publicize the qualities that actually matter to judicial candidates’ jobs.
A judge’s political party is not one of these qualities. It obscures rather than illuminates the choice of good judicial candidates. Citizens should urge their legislators not to take a step that could fundamentally impair the independence and perceived fairness of our state’s judicial system.
John R. Wester practices law with Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson, P.A in Charlotte and is a past president of the North Carolina Bar Association.