Local & State Voices

Voters, not lawmakers, should own North Carolina’s courts

At least nine bills have been proposed in the last year and half by our legislature to change our courts
At least nine bills have been proposed in the last year and half by our legislature to change our courts Observer file photo

We have three branches of government and need them all, but I’ll admit, even as a devoted voter I’ve walked into the polls without knowing judges on the ballot. If the executive branch is, say, class valedictorian and their surrounding in-crowd, and the legislature is, say, the jocks who keep our attention on play-by-play, well, the courts are the super geeks. We only think to turn to them when we have a homework problem we can’t solve any other way. And then it really matters who is on the bench.

At least nine bills have been proposed in the last 18 months by our legislature to change our courts, altering our districts and our elections. It’s dizzying, but this much is clear: The legislature wants power over who gets to the bench.

This should set off alarm bells for anyone who’s had basic civics and remembers that three strong, independent branches of government are needed to keep checks on each other’s power.

North Carolina once was a national model for fair courts, something to brag about. We had publicly funded, non-partisan elections, and judges who abided by N.C.’s strict rules for small donations and public money were called “voter owned.” No more. The legislature took voter-owned justice away in 2013, and non-partisan elections got the chop after that. Unsurprisingly, our 2016 supreme court election campaigns ran into the millions in spending by PACs on each of the candidates. Absolutely not voter-owned.

When the state decides to put a highway project through your living room and lowballs the estimate on what your home is worth and you take the state to court — don’t you want to know the judge who decides the case doesn’t owe local politicos any favors?

When a local energy company decides to dump some tons of toxic waste in your backyard, and the state says that’s just fine (while pocketing campaign donations) — and you sue to keep the toxins away from your community and family — don’t you need to know the judge isn’t dependent upon that company’s donations or the state’s friendly approval before deciding your case?

Recently, N.C.’s voting maps were laughed at across the nation’s media outlets as the most audacious examples of gerrymandering. Those maps and their revisions are still bouncing around the courts. It would be a great boon for the legislators who drew the maps to also to pick the judges who decide their cases. Not so great for voters, who want the basic democratic power next November to pick the legislators who represent us.

This legislature has been bold, passing laws that push the limits of constitutionality. Lawmakers have often expanded their own powers with legislation crafted behind closed doors and rushed to vote without giving reps a chance to read through bills, much less debate them. We may not figure out the harmful effects on our families, our property, our communities, and our pocketbooks, until the legislation has passed. As a last resort, that unfair legislation can be taken to court. We need our courts to answer to the people of North Carolina, and no one else. We need our representatives in Raleigh to know the courts, the governorship and their own seats as well, are all voter-owned.