As I reported previously, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper vetoed a bill that would require state trial court elections to be partisan. Candidates would have to participate in party primaries and run under a specific party affiliation. Disappointingly, the state House of Representatives voted to override the veto yesterday. The issue now moves to the state Senate.
UPDATE: The Senate has completed the veto override. All North Carolina judicial elections will be partisan going forward.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on the results of last week’s ballot lottery for candidates seeking a position on Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas (its general jurisdiction trial court). Forty-eight candidates entered the state primary for ten open positions, and their ballot order was determined by lottery. The article nicely details the consequences of ballot position: candidates at the top have a tremendous strategic advantage in the primary election, regardless of their relevant experience, expertise, or skill.
Judicial elections were the standard for state courts until the mid-twentieth century, but their flaws have become increasingly exposed over time. Poor or incompetent judges are elected, experienced jurists are removed in party sweeps, and public confidence falls as judges are treated as ordinary politicians. Groups like Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts have been at the forefront of pushing for positive change in that state’s judicial selection methodology.
Contested elections can — and often do — produce fine judges. And judges should be accountable to the public they serve, no matter how they are chosen. But the surety of choosing a good judge by contested election increasingly feels like a lottery itself.
I previously reported on a bill in the North Carolina legislature that would convert the state’s elections for trial judges into partisan races. The practical effect would be that judicial candidates would first have to clear party primaries, and then would appear on the ballot with a party designation.
This was a bad idea, and Governor Roy Cooper has vetoed the bill.
Although Cooper is a Democrat and the North Carolina legislature is controlled by Republicans, the acknowledged inefficacy of partisan judicial elections is not itself a partisan issue. Politicians and commentators from across the political spectrum agree that in the modern era, party labels for judicial candidates weaken the public legitimacy of the judiciary, offer little significant information to voters, and are at best extremely awkward for judges. The North Carolina proposal was a step backward.
In February 2014, the local branch of the NAACP in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, filed a federal civil rights action alleging that the system used to elect judges in the state’s 32nd Judicial District violated the federal Voting Rights and the U.S. Constitution. More than three years and several procedural twists later, the case went to trial this week in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana.
Terrebonne Parish currently elects all five of its state judges using an “at-large” system, meaning that all judges are chosen by a parish-wide vote even though each judge presides over a specific division of the court. Plaintiffs argue that this system disenfranchises minority voters, and are seeking to replace it with five judge-specific voting districts, one of which would be a minority district.
Aside from the substantive importance of the parties’ positions, this case is another interesting example of federal challenges to state judicial election practices.
Continue reading “Trial begins in Louisiana judicial election voting rights case”
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.
A recent court appointment in West Virginia highlights the interplay between a court system’s internal management and its external environment. Gary Johnson served as a state circuit court judge for 24 years before losing his reelection bid last year by 220 votes. Last month, his opponent, Stephen Callaghan, was suspended from his judicial duties for two years for improper conduct during he campaign. (Callaghan’s campaign apparently issued a flyer implying that Judge Johnson partied at the White House with Barack Obama, an action deemed to be a violation of the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct and Rules of Professional Conduct.)
Judge Johnson could not undo the election results, but he landed on his feet quickly. In January, he was appointed interim Administrative Director of the West Virginia courts. Yesterday, the state supreme court gave him the job permanently.
Continue reading “Former West Virginia judge appointed state court administrator after bizarre election campaign”