Right problem, wrong solution

Too many North Carolinians lack confidence in our courts, according to a recently concluded 15-month study initiated by Mark Martin, Chief Justice of our state Supreme Court. Fifty-three percent of the public believe court outcomes are “fair only some of the time or not at all.” Sixty-three percent say court cases are handled in a timely manner, but only 42 percent believe our courts are sensitive to the needs of the average person. Court reform is needed in North Carolina.

Said Martin, “The work of this blue-ribbon commission will help ensure that North Carolina’s Judicial Branch meets the needs and expectations that the people of North Carolina have for fair, modern and impartial courts.”

A number of recommendations resulted from the study, the most notable being that North Carolina needs to change how judges and justices are selected and retained. Unfortunately, the commission failed to recommend how to improve our current system of electing judges, a system fraught with problems.

Judicial elections usually fall at the bottom of a lengthy ballot and many voters are fatigued by the time they get to these elections. The larger problem is that even well informed voters admit they don’t know the candidates or their qualifications. The conundrum is further complicated because voters overwhelmingly say they don’t want to lose the right to vote on judges.

There are three primary systems across the country for judicial selection and retention. Many states hold judicial elections, some designating the party affiliation of the candidates, others using non-partisan elections. A straightforward gubernatorial selection of judges is employed by some states, but in recent years there has been a growing movement toward what is termed “merit selection” or assisted appointments, also known as the Missouri Plan. This process employs a nominating commission to review the qualifications of judicial candidates, submitting a short list of names to the governor, who appoints a judge from that list. After serving the initial term that judge must stand for a “yes-no” retention vote to continue on the bench.

The website Ballotpedia reports that partisan judicial elections are favored most often by Southern states, non-partisan elections by Northwestern states. Northeastern states tend to favor gubernatorial appointments, while Central states prefer assisted appointments

Over the years our General Assembly has attempted to resolve the perceived problems. When Democrats controlled the legislature they made all judicial elections non-partisan. Recently, the Republican-controlled legislature attempted to insert a retention process for Justices on our Supreme Court, a law ruled in violation of Article IV, Section 16 of our Constitution, which clearly calls for judges at all levels to be elected. The latest change, coming just weeks ago, requires partisan elections for all judges. Our lawmakers have identified the right problem but come up with the wrong solutions.

I don’t want Republican judges. I don’t want Democratic judges. I also don’t want to go to the ballot box forced to choose from a list of people I don’t know. I want jurists qualified to read our Constitution and our laws and judge impartially.

Despite what voters say, judicial elections aren’t serving us well and reform is needed. Let’s amend our Constitution with some system of merit selection and retention of judges. It is time this long-standing debate was decided. Call the next case.

Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator and host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of N.C. issues airing Sundays at 6:30am on WRAL-TV and at 8:30am on WRAZ-TV FOX50. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.