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.
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.