North Carolina used to select all of its state judges through partisan election. Judicial candidates would have to win a party primary, and would appear on the ballot with a party designation. In 1996, the state legislature eliminated the partisan designations for state superior court races, and in 2001 did the same for district courts. Judges still face contested popular elections, but do not run under any party affiliation.
North Carolina’s move put it in good company. While a handful of states still have partisan races, most states that still elect their judges long ago moved to a nonpartisan system. Nonpartisan elections are certainly not foolproof, but deliberately omitting party affiliation from the ballot at least reinforces the message that voters should expect their judges to be impartial in performing their official duties.
This week, however, the North Carolina Senate chose to revert to partisan judicial elections. The state House of Representatives passed a similar (but not identical) bill earlier in the session. There is speculation that the Governor may veto the bill. Stay tuned.
U.S. Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) has introduced a bill (one of four currently in Congress) to split the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals into two circuit courts. Apparently in response to reports that Ninth Circuit judges opposed the bill, Senator Flake asked the Ninth Circuit Executive for clarification on the court’s ability to rule fairly if the legislation were adopted and subsequently challenged. This week, Cathy Catterson, the Circuit Executive of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, responded with an unqualified yes.
Given that bills to split the Ninth Circuit have been introduced many times since 1941, and have never gained serious traction, it is hard to see this as anything more than political posturing. But the regular recurrence of the proposal again illustrates the deep interdependence of the federal courts. Indeed, circuit reorganization is literally an existential issue, affecting active judgeships, resources, case assignments, precedent, and internal court dynamics. The judges naturally have an interest in the outcome, but they lack any direct say in it.
So let’s play out the hypothetical. Could the Ninth Circuit judges rule on the reorganization of their own court? And what would that look like? Continue reading “Could the Ninth Circuit rule on its own split?”