Taylor Batten

Filing for judges opens Monday. 'Katie, bar the door.'

Mike Morgan's victory in 2016 gave Democrats a 4-3 edge on the North Carolina Supreme Court.
Mike Morgan's victory in 2016 gave Democrats a 4-3 edge on the North Carolina Supreme Court. News & Observer file photo

I am saddened to report the death of an admirable presence in this state, cherished and full of integrity: an independent, apolitical judiciary.

Candidate filing starts Monday for the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals and trial courts and all pretense of being above partisanship is officially out the window. 'Katie, bar the door.': The Democrats have their candidates, the Republicans have theirs and anyone who wants to be an objective jurist refusing to toe the party line need not apply.

The North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct says a judge “should conduct himself/herself at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”

Crucially, it also says: “A judge should be unswayed by partisan interests, public clamor, or fear of criticism.”

The lead-up to candidate filing has been filled with nothing but partisan interests and public clamor. Last week, the Democratic Party came out with its slate of endorsements, and those candidates returned the embrace. “I am enormously grateful for the endorsement of the North Carolina Democratic Party,” Supreme Court candidate Anita Earls said.

Less than 24 hours later, the N.C. Republican Party announced its chosen ones and went one step further: It urged (warned?) all other Republicans who might want to run to stay out and defer to the party’s endorsements.

“When it comes to the statewide judicial races, North Carolina Republicans have spoken,” party Chairman Robin Hayes said.

Except they haven’t, of course. The election is in November, so almost all of the 2 million Republicans in the state haven’t said a word.

Before then, the gloves will come off. In fact, they already have. In their endorsement announcement, the Republicans declared that Earls, who is expected to be the primary threat to incumbent Justice Barbara Jackson, is “a danger to human life.” Brace yourself for more.

Sure, the state’s courtrooms have never been completely free of politics. In fact, judicial races were partisan for much of the state’s history, until the 1990s. But since then, and even then, the vast majority of candidates understood the importance of an independent judiciary and, as importantly, the appearance of one. Judicial candidates avoided the campaign trail and emphasized their independence from the parties, not their loyalty to them.

Now, legislative Republicans have made all judicial races partisan, shrunk the Court of Appeals to lock in Republican advantage and eliminated judicial primaries. They even floated the idea of cutting judicial terms from eight years (in most cases) to two, forcing judges to be in constant campaign mode. Rep. David Lewis told North Carolina Public Radio last year that the thinking behind that bill was, “if you’re going to act like a legislator, perhaps you should run like one.”

Dedicated, impartial people are still on the bench. They know they serve the Constitution and the rule of law, and must be insulated enough to do so. But for opportunistic others, the dynamic has shifted and judgeships have become like any other elected office.

North Carolinians have always hoped that judges were above the political fray, rendering decisions based on the evidence before them in each particular case. Now judges are likely to be reliable and predictable Democrats or Republicans, just like governors, legislators and members of Congress. And you’ll never know if you’re getting a fair shake.

tbatten@charlotteobserver.com
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