Taylor Batten

North Carolina’s chief justice is worried. You should be too.

Martin cliddy@newsobserver.com

With North Carolina’s Republican legislature constantly assaulting the judiciary’s independence, it’s one thing for editorial writers to call for taking some politics out of the courtroom by fundamentally changing how judges are selected. It’s quite another for the chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court – and a Republican, no less – to do so.

Chief Justice Mark Martin on Saturday called on legislators to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to have judges appointed rather than have them parade before voters in partisan elections. He said that approach would best create an independent and well-qualified judiciary.

“I continue to believe that the judiciary should be as independent as possible,” Martin, who was appointed chief justice by Gov. Pat McCrory, told the N.C. Bar Association on Saturday, according to draft remarks. “It should be free from the political considerations that are a normal and healthy part of the executive and legislative branches.”

Unfortunately, political considerations are more prevalent in North Carolina’s courts now than they have been in decades, perhaps ever. Republican legislators have spent the past several years making the courts more political, not less.

In March, they passed a law, over Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto, that made District Court and Superior Court races partisan, joining the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. In April, they overrode Cooper’s veto and shrunk the Court of Appeals from 15 judges to 12 to keep it more Republican.

In 2013, Republicans and McCrory killed the state’s widely admired public financing program. It provided public funding to judicial candidates who agreed to strict spending limits. Most did, both liberals and conservatives. As a result, the amount of money in judicial campaigns from PACs and lawyers plummeted from 73 percent to 14 percent, reports say.

Once that program was abolished, special interest money rushed into our court races like a Denver Bronco into the Panthers backfield.

These and other moves have produced a court system in which judges campaign in their party’s jersey instead of an impartial robe and raise money from lawyers and special interests who might appear before them. It’s a system that rewards the best campaigners over the sharpest legal minds, and heightens the possibility of favoritism in the courtroom, or at least the appearance of it.

Martin on Saturday urged a different way.

He said any merit selection process should have three components:

▪ A panel should evaluate judicial candidates and rate them as well qualified, qualified or not qualified;

▪ Judges would then be appointed by “an appropriate governmental authority with accountability to the people”;

▪ Judges would face periodic retention elections so the people still have a role in the process.

Legislators might not listen to Martin. After all, his court has struck down a number of their laws. They didn’t even invite him to deliver a State of the Judiciary report this year, as they typically do.

But they should listen. An appointive system with retention elections is no panacea. You can’t remove the politics from judicial selection entirely. Politics and money, though, are infecting North Carolina’s judicial system to an unprecedented degree, undercutting the notion that cases will be heard fairly and impartially. Our courts’ performance, and the public’s faith in them, hinges on a change.