‘Justice is Blind’, or so the saying goes, but should that adage also apply for electing justices? Believe it or not, our current system for electing judges in North Carolina encourages just that. By removing the (R) or the (D) from a candidate’s name on the ballot, our system of non-partisan elections robs the voter of an invaluable piece of information at the polls: the political sentiments of their would-be judges.
This question is currently being debated in the House, as SB47—a bill that would restore partisan identifications in judicial elections sponsored by Senator Jerry Tillman (R – Montgomery)—advances through the General Assembly at the eleventh hour. A bipartisan vote carried the bill last Wednesday afternoon through the Senate, garnering the support of five Democrats, and slipping just through the chamber just before the crossover date. A House vote on the matter is expected this week.
During the legislative sessions of 1996, 2001, and 2002, judicial elections for the appellate, superior, and district courts changed from partisan to non-partisan, creating a regrettable system of low voter turnout. Bill sponsor Senator Tillman emphasized this point in an email response to a request for comment. Tillman stressed that knowledge of the candidates is key in judicial races, and adding partisan identifications is the way to accomplish that.
“The participation of voters greatly falls off in judicial elections, in large part because the voter is unfamiliar with the candidates,” Tillman said. “Including a party affiliation would give them some information about the candidates, and could lead to greater participation by the voters.”
Senator Debbie Clary (R – Rutherford), a co-sponsor of SB47, had similar thoughts on the matter. While originally a supporter of non-partisan races, she had a change of heart over the years following the implementation of non-partisan elections.
“Every election I am asked for a list of conservative judges before the election,” Clary said. “I feel strongly that before voting, people want to know if a judicial candidate is conservative or liberal and the indicator is a partisan ballot.”
“History has indicated to me that these races need to be partisan,” she added.
Associate Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court Robert Orr served on the state’s highest court during that period and witnessed some of the strange outcomes of non-partisan judicial elections.
“Non-partisan judicial elections have resulted in a bizarre primary system and less information to assist the average voter who knows little if anything about the candidates,” Orr said.
He then hinted there may have been an ulterior motive in turning judicial races non-partisan. The bills establishing non-partisan judicial elections all passed during Democratic control of Raleigh.
“Judicial races were changed from partisan to non-partisan over the past several election cycles primarily because of the growing success of Republican candidates in these elections. The result has slowed the success of Republican judicial candidates as planned and resulted in a system giving greater influence to special interest groups who endorse judicial candidates.”
Opponents of restoring partisanship to judicial races maintain that politics should not be in the courtroom, a lofty goal, but one unlikely to be solved by removing partisan indicators from a candidate’s name on the ballot.
House Minority Leader Joe Hackney (D – Orange) reiterated this point to the Charlotte Observer.
“It’s simply inappropriate to be partisan as a judge.”
SB47 will likely pass this week, but faces the real possibility of veto by Governor Beverly Perdue. If it survives, upcoming elections will feature more information about judicial candidates for voters at the ballot box.