New Senate bill threatens Justices’ tenureBy Cash Michaels, Peacemaker Contributor / October 27, 2017
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Just when Democratic lawmakers thought they’d seen it all when it comes to Republican voter suppression laws, illegal voting districts and, in the opinion of many, over-all power grabs, comes yet another legislative shocker.
As the third Special Session called by Republican leaders in the N.C. General Assembly ended last week on Oct. 17, Sen. Bill Rabon (R-New Hanover) filed SB 698, a Constitutional Amendment titled “Increase Voter Accountability of Judges:”
The bill reads in part, “Justices of the Supreme Court, Judges of the Court of Appeals, and regular Judges of the Superior Court shall be elected by the qualified voters (of the state) and shall hold office for terms of two years and until their successors are elected and qualified.
(2) All terms of office for persons elected prior to July 1, 2018, to the office of Justice of the Supreme Court, Judge of the Court of Appeals, or regular Judge of the Superior Court shall expire December 31, 2018.
(3) All Justices of the Supreme Court, Judges of the Court of Appeals, and regular Judges of the Superior Court shall be elected to a two-year term of office beginning with the general election held in 2018.”
With the General Assembly reconvening in January, this amendment could be on the May 2018 ballot for voter’s approval, with judicial elections held in November 2018.
Then on Tuesday morning of this week, Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger (R- Rockingham) announced the formation of a new 15-member Senate Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting.
Sen. Rabon is one of three Republican senators to chair the committee. Indeed, there are only five Democratic senators appointed to the panel, meaning that Republicans, just like in the rest of the legislature, are in the majority and in control, so they’ll have the final word.
“This committee will carefully consider all options on how we select judges, including the House’s judicial redistricting bill, merit selection models, retention elections, and, if we maintain a system of elections, their frequency and partisan structure,” Sen. Berger added. “I sincerely hope the committee reaches a consensus recommendation that will modernize and strengthen our courts.”
Most Democrats interviewed believe that by “strengthen our courts,” Sen. Berger and other GOP’ers simply mean put more Republicans on the bench, especially on the state Supreme Court. Dems’ nerves have already been rubbed raw by House Bill 717, which calls for judicial redistricting without any judicial input, and they found no relief when Republicans voted to literally cancel the 2018 judicial primaries over Gov. Cooper’s veto, leaving the possibility of adopting a judicial merit selection system when lawmakers return for their next regular session on Jan. 10.
But the target of Sen. Rabon’s Senate Bill 698 isn’t just reducing the terms of superior court judges or state Supreme Court justices – most of whom are Democrats.
“The most prominent victims of this court destruction scheme will be those judges who were elected during this past election to four and eight year terms of office, and this class includes Associate Supreme Court Justice Michael Morgan, an African American,” says attorney Irving Joyner, chair of the N.C. NAACP Legal Redress Committee.
“The goal of this constitutional plan is to provide for the election of judges who are beholden to the Republican Party or its present right-wing ideology,” Joyner continued. “As such, it is an attempt to high-jack our court system and it should be aggressively resisted. Voters, especially African Americans, should fight back against this sordid scheme.”
Morgan’s 2016 election gave Democrats a 4-3 majority on the state’s High Court. Republican legislative leaders toyed with simply increasing the number of seats on the court to ultimately have more Republicans either be elected, or appointed. But now with Rabon’s bill, if it passes next session, Morgan’s term would end December 31, 2018, giving him only two-years on the bench.
Every other justice’s term would end in December 2018 as well, meaning regardless of how long they’ve served, they’d have to either run for re-lection, or leave office. Now that justices and judges are required to run in partisan races, it would make it easier for GOP judicial candidates to mount more negative campaigns against Democrats.
Even former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Bob Edmunds, a Republican, who Morgan defeated last year, “questioned the wisdom” of reducing High Court judicial terms to just two-years. Another Republican former state Supreme Court justice, Robert Orr, called the proposed Rabon amendment, “. . . just wrong,” adding it was a “. . . continued effort to try and intimidate the judiciary.”
A Greensboro newspaper called it, “…legislating by Keystone Kops…disorder in the courts is the likely outcome.”
Republican Rep. Donny Lambeth (R-Forsyth), however, sees nothing wrong with radically changing the system.
“This bill was introduced while we were leaving town and there was no discussion while we were in session. So I don’t know much about it,” Rep. Lambeth admitted. “But it is an interesting idea and does seem to be consistent with legislative elections that are every two years. So it seems a reasonable idea. It is hard to know if it will move forward or when.”
If Sen. Rabon’s bill passes, it would make North Carolina the only state in the nation requiring just two-year terms for its Supreme Court justices.
Needless to say, Democrats find themselves, once again, shaking their heads.
“This continuing, unnecessary infringement on the structure of the judicial branch by the legislature – without demand for it and without proper vetting – smacks of the worst type of political maneuvering,” opined Rep. Amos Quick (D- Guilford).
Rep. Quick’s Guilford County colleague, Rep. Pricey Harrison, also gave the Republicans no slack.
“Because the GOP has not had great success defending their legislation in the courts, they seem determined to design a system to create more Republican judges, at a time when North Carolinians want less partisanship in the courts,” Harrison said. “The latest bill which would call for a constitutional amendment to shorten all judges terms, seems to be an attempt to create more chaos, and may be intended to build support for the leadership’s proposed “legislative selection,” where the legislative leadership would chose judges.”
Rep. Harrison concluded, “The justification offered by the proponents of the shortened terms, to hold judges more accountable, is preposterous. We want fair judges, who interpret the law without bias, not judges who are worried about potentially unpopular decisions and elections every two years.”
Over on the Senate side, Democratic Minority Leader Dan Blue (D-Wake) is one of the five Democratic committee members, along with African American colleague Sen. Floyd McKissick (D-Durham). But Blue doesn’t hold out much hope for a fair process.
“This bill is the latest in a wave of assaults on the judicial branch,” Sen. Blue declared. “There is no logic or reasoning behind it, only contempt for the courts that have continued to rule against Republican agendas. Two-year terms for judges is ludicrous.”
“This appears to be another intimidation tactic on the legislature’s part and, I hope, it won’t progress any further and come to a vote,” Blue continued. “I trust that my colleagues in the Senate have enough sense not to support such a draconian measure. In the end, this only serves to cause further disruption and instability in our system of government; and that only serves to further hurt North Carolina.”