RALEIGH — Legislative Republicans vowed to offer changes in the way North Carolinians select judges. Tuesday afternoon, they rolled out a big one.
A few hours after the House rejected the governor’s veto of a bill canceling judicial primaries in 2018, the House and Senate Rules Committee chairmen proposed a constitutional amendment shortening judicial terms from four or eight years to two — beginning next year.
In a joint news release, Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, and Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, said the proposed amendment would appear on the May primary ballot if it got the necessary three-fifths support in both chambers.
It would reduce terms of District Court judges from four years to two. Terms on Superior Court, the Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court would shrink from eight years to two.
Elections for all judicial seats — even those with terms ending after 2018 — would occur next November. The governor would continue filling judicial vacancies by appointment. Replacement judges would serve until the end of the current term.
The House voted late Tuesday morning 72-40 to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of Senate Bill 656. The Senate’s successful 26-15 override vote took place Monday.
In his veto message for S.B. 656, Cooper hinted that the General Assembly wanted to “rig the system” of judicial selection through a redistricting plan in House Bill 717. That measure passed the House earlier this month but has not been taken up by the Senate.
Cooper and other Democrats also warned that the GOP had additional moves in mind to alter the judicial branch. In part, Democrats wondered why S.B. 656 canceled primaries for Court of Appeals and Supreme Court candidates, since those judges run statewide and would not be affected by any redistricting plan.
In an email, Rep. Joe John, D-Wake, a former Court of Appeals judge, said “’war’ on a constitutionally mandated separate, independent, co-equal branch of government — the North Carolina judiciary — has been declared. This latest proposal is but the most recent in a long line of bills this legislative session seeking to bring the judicial branch of government to heel.”
In the press release, Rabon and Lewis said frequent elections would make judges more accountable. Rabon cited a 2017 poll showing strong support for electing judges every two years.
He also suggested other changes will be discussed when lawmakers return next year, including H.B. 717. “In the coming months, the Senate will carefully consider a number of options for reforming the way judges are selected in North Carolina including the House’s judicial redistricting bill, moving to some form of merit selection of judges, and retention elections for judges,” Rabon said in the release.
Lewis noted during debate over the veto of S.B. 656 that, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee I in the 1990s, Cooper supported appointing judges. In recent weeks, Cooper has reversed course, saying he prefers elections.
“I hear concerns from my constituents all the time about judges legislating from the bench. Under this amendment, if a voter feels like a judge is acting like a legislator, they can vote to change their judge every two years just like they can vote to change their legislator every two years,” Lewis said.
Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, wondered how judges who were elected to serve four- and eight-year terms could be forced to run for re-election prematurely.
“It sounds like you’re taking terms that people have been duly elected to, and reducing those terms once they have already received their commissions, and are serving those terms,” McKissick said. “I suspect you would see litigation that would come forth from this.”
McKissick said shortening terms of appellate judges could make the judiciary more political, not less. One reason appellate judges have longer terms than trial judges is to insulate them from what he called “every political tsunami.”
The General Assembly is not expected to return to Raleigh until next year.