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Supreme Court election overhaul a good first step

N.C. Supreme Court Justice Robert Edmunds would run in a retention election, with no opponent, next year, under a bill approved Thursday.
N.C. Supreme Court Justice Robert Edmunds would run in a retention election, with no opponent, next year, under a bill approved Thursday. 2002 AP FILE PHOTO

Amid abortion, guns and gay marriage, you might have missed that the N.C. legislature approved a fundamental change in judicial elections today.

The House voted 65-49 for a bill that would overhaul the way Supreme Court justices are elected in North Carolina. Justices seeking another term would run in retention elections, in which voters would give an up or down vote on the justice. The justice would not run against another candidate.

Justices, including those appointed to fill vacancies, would still have to be elected by the voters in a traditional election the first time they’re on the ballot. The retention election would be held only when they seek reelection.

When the House narrowly passed this bill in April, it applied to both Supreme Court and Court of Appeals races. The Senate, though, removed the Court of Appeals from the bill so it now only applies to the highest court. That’s disappointing and puzzling, to say the least, and no explanation for the change was given on the House floor today.

In 2016, the new law would apply only to Associate Justice Robert Edmunds, a Republican expected to seek another term.

The removal of the Court of Appeals led some House Democrats who supported the bill the first time to defect, saying it now gave special treatment to Edmunds. But Edmunds was going to face a retention election under either version of the bill. While we agree that the bill was better when it included the Court of Appeals, its removal does not affect Edmunds one way or the other.

We have long believed North Carolina’s appellate judges should be appointed, just as federal ones are. This bill is a small step in the right direction. The prospect of retention elections could attract higher quality people to the bench, knowing they won’t have to be campaigning in an expensive and potentially bitter contested election repeatedly. And while this bill does not remove the politics or the special-interest money from judicial elections, it is likely to dampen it at least a bit. -- Taylor Batten

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