LUMBERTON — Next year voters in North Carolina will know which political party judicial candidates are affiliated with when they cast ballots — a change not embraced by local officials who work inside the system.
House Bill 100 makes Superior Court and District Court elections partisan. The Senate overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the bill on by a vote of 32-15 last week, with Republicans Sens. John Alexander, of Raleigh, and Danny Britt Jr., of Robeson County, voting against the override. The House had voted 77-44 the day before to override the veto.
Britt doesn’t believe partisanship should have a seat in the courtroom.
“Very few judges make decisions, at that level, on being conservative or a Democrat,” Britt said.
The freshman senator does not believe local judges are harder on criminals because they ascribe to a particular political party.
“Some of the hardest sentencing judges are Democrats. Some who go the other way are conservative,” Britt said.
Britt, who has been practicing law for 15 years, believes local judicial races are about appointing men and women who “call balls and strikes,” following already established laws. However, Britt agrees statewide races for the appellate court and state Supreme Court should be partisan for those whose job it is to interpret the law.
“Those judges make very partisan decisions,” Britt said. “It also gives people a chance to vote for people that think like them.”
Local voters have a much better idea of a judge as a person rather than based only on party politics, he said. It is unlikely voters are that familiar with candidates at the state level.
Republicans who control the General Assembly say that the measure gives voters helpful information. Democrats say it politicizes the courts.
“I think it’s a negative. It is going to bring politics into the courtroom,” Superior Court Judge James G. Bell said. “It is better to be removed from the politics and just concentrate on being a judge.”
The new law will make it difficult for independent judges to be elected and puts judges in the path of many of the people they have to preside over when they are on the campaign trail, said Bell, a Democrat.
“It wouldn’t bar me from running. I’ll still be running in 2020,” Bell said. “But, a lot of judges who I am friends with are listed as independents.”
Under the new law, unaffiliated candidates will no longer be allowed to pay the election filing fee and sign up to run for re-election. They will have to collect signatures from voters endorsing their candidacies.
“Judicial officials are supposed to be above the fray,” said Johnson Britt, Robeson County district attorney. He is not related to Danny Britt.
He disagrees with HB 100, but downplays its potential effect.
“There are identifiers for judges in political advertising,” Johnson Britt said. “Catch words like ‘conservative’ and ‘law and order.’ Those are partisan judicial elections.”
Robeson County’s top prosecutor sees the move as part of a current political trend.
“I think, from the legislature’s standpoint, the Republicans think they are at an advantage and want to appoint conservative judges,” he said. “I favor nonpartisan judicial elections.”
Superior Court elections were switched from partisan to nonpartisan in 1996, and District Court elections followed in 2001.
“Democrats removed party labels from the ballot because they were losing those elections,” Robin Hayes, state Republican Party chairman, said in a statement after the veto override.
Hayes and other Republicans contend those changes have disenfranchised voters, noting that hundreds of thousands fewer North Carolinians voted for state Supreme Court candidates than for presidential candidates in 2016.
Cooper, the former attorney general for the state, had long fought against partisan judicial elections.
“Injecting partisan politics into our courts is wrong and harmful to our state,” Ford Porter, Gov. Cooper’s press secretary, said in a statement.
Republicans are advancing “a divisive political agenda,” Porter said.
Reach Mike Gellatly at 910-816-1989 or via Twitter @MikeGellatly