Republican state lawmakers who have seen the courts overturn key provisions of their agenda to shift North Carolina to the political right have decided to cancel the coming primary elections for all judicial candidates.
Rep. David Lewis, the Harnett County Republican who brought the proposal to his colleagues in the House, said he considered the election changes necessary to provide candidates time to study proposed new election districts. The new maps would give rural voters more say in who the judges are in the state’s district courts and superior courts.
But when the House was asked to vote on the election schedule change, the new maps proposed for electing judges and district attorneys had not been put to a vote. The maps have been criticized by Democrats and many involved in the state court system as attempts to give Republicans an advantage in elections.
“Why do we need to do this now?” Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Democrat from Durham, asked Lewis about the primary election changes.
“We are serious about the reform of the judicial districts,” Lewis responded, adding that a common refrain among the many critics of the judicial redistricting plan was people urging the lawmakers to “take their time” to get it right.
“Aren’t we sort of like putting the cart before the horse?” Michaux asked.
Despite the questions about timing, the House approved the primary changes plan in a 70 to 44 vote, and the state Senate approved the plan in a 30 to 16 vote. Now it goes to Gov. Roy Cooper before it can become law.
The House, after nearly three hours of debate, adopted a plan to overhaul the election districts used to elect judges and district attorneys across the state.
The Senate adjourned its session this week before the House vote at 9:50 p.m. without considering the judicial redistricting plan.
Rep. Marcia Morey said she thought the plan to do away with primary elections for all judicial candidates in North Carolina — including the state Court of Appeals and state Supreme Court races, which are statewide and not affected by the judicial map changes — was an indication that Republican leaders in the Senate hope to ask voters in the May primary elections if North Carolina should end judicial elections altogether and move to a process of appointing judges.
Morey is a Democrat from Durham who was a district court judge until this past spring.
Not only does the plan do away with primary elections, it delays the period in which judicial candidates would formally sign up to run for office until June — four months after the existing schedule.
The plan is included in a bill that mostly deals with easing ballot access requirements for third parties as well as for unaffiliated candidates. It also lowers the threshold for a primary candidate to win his or her party's nomination from 40 percent of the primary vote to 30 percent.
But it was the changes to the election schedule that elicited the most comments.
“The delay of the primary could indicate a strong possibility that we’ll be voting on whether to have a constitutional amendment to have merit selection of judges in January,” said Morey, who opposed doing away with judicial primaries. “What I think is the merit-based selection is a guise for legislative appointment of judges.”
While Rep. Justin Burr, a Stanly County Republican, has been traveling the state for the past several months, trying to win support for the new judicial and prosecutorial districts, a key Senate aide has been testing out a different idea.
Jim Blaine, the chief of staff for Sen. Phil Berger, the Rockingham County Republican who wields much power in the legislature, has been talking to judges about asking voters to amend the state Constitution so a select few will decide who presides over criminal and civil cases that include challenges to laws.
Some states have moved to what is called merit-based selection of judges, taking the decision away from voters and turning it over to commissions, legislators, governors or combinations of elected officials and others.
North Carolina’s chief justice advocated for selection rather than election of judges at a N.C. Bar Association meeting this summer.
Last week, Judge Robert N. Hunter Jr., a member of the state appeals court who faces mandatory retirement from the bench in the spring of 2019 almost five years before his elected term ends, sent a proposed constitutional amendment to the recently revived state Courts Commission for consideration.
Judges across the state are being asked to consider the idea, too. Some groups such as the North Carolina Association of District Court Judges have stopped short of a blanket endorsement of the idea, noting a lack of details about how appointments would be made.