From The News & Record: Former judges say N.C. judiciary is under siege
Judges all over North Carolina are speaking out against the General Assembly's plan to rig our courts by politicizing judge races, eliminating judicial primaries, reducing judicial terms from 4-8 years down to 2, and possibly eliminating judicial elections altogether. The judicial branch of our government was established to be independent, impartial and equal. Republicans in Raleigh are seeking to take away that independence by appointing judges with no say from the voters, which would allow their unconstitutional bills to pass unchallenged. This is not a democracy, it takes away the important checks and balances of our legislature and needs to be stopped.
If you want to see the future of the North Carolina judiciary as envisioned by Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), look no further than President Donald Trump’s most recent judicial picks.
Brett Talley, a 36-year-old nominated for a lifetime appointment as a federal judge, has only practiced law for three years and never has tried a case. He is the fourth judicial nominee under President Trump to receive a “not qualified” rating from the American Bar Association.
Talley does have strong Republican bona fides, however, as he has demonstrated on social media, where he called the former Secretary of State “Hillary Rotten Clinton,” and pledged his financial, political and intellectual loyalty to the National Rifle Association after 20 children were slaughtered by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary.
“Judges are not and should not be partisan politicians,” former Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens said. “The work that they do has nothing to do with politics. Our duty is to the Constitution and the laws enacted by legislature under the Constitution. We do not have constituents. We cannot take a side, and that’s how it should be.”
That’s why the judiciary was established as an independent, impartial and co-equal branch of government. All that is destroyed when you give politicians power over the judiciary. And that’s what Berger wants to do in abandoning judicial elections in favor of “merit” selection by the General Assembly.
Three former judges told an audience in Raleigh on Wednesday that “merit” selection under the General Assembly would be anything but. Judicial experience likely would be secondary to a candidate’s political beliefs and willingness to uphold party orthodoxy from the bench.
The General Assembly is expected to propose an amendment to the state constitution as early as January to move from an election to an appointment process for judges. North Carolina voters would have to approve amendments to the constitution in a statewide referendum.
“If that plan passes, it will compromise the independence and integrity of our future judiciary,” Stephens said. “It will make future judges appointed hereafter completely indebted to the North Carolina legislature that selected them. It will shift the balance of power of government, making the legislature far superior to the inferior judiciary.”
Stephens, along with Rep. Joe John (D-Wake), a former appeals and district court judge, and Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham), a former district court judge, spoke about the threat to the judiciary at a forum cosponsored by N.C. Voters for Clean Elections, which supports public financing of elections, and N.C. Policy Watch, the news operation of nonprofit N.C. Justice Center, which supports economic and social justice.
Stephens said the attacks on the judiciary were “just plain payback” by the General Assembly, which has seen many of its laws and plans overturned on constitutional grounds.
“As a result of this, war has been declared, and measure after measure has been introduced, seeking to rip the blindfold of fairness and impartiality from Lady Justice and to bring the judicial branch of government to partisan heel,” John said.
Any legislation coming out of the General Assembly would be impervious to legal challenges if the judges deciding the cases were selected by and beholden to the General Assembly.