Editorial: Retention Elections are a Political Power Grab

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The Greensboro News and Record is out with an editorial slamming the GOP-led legislature for what it sees as a blatant political power grab. Instead of voting in a real NC Supreme Court election this year, voters will only be able to choose whether or not to re-elect the incumbent. Then, even if the incumbent is voted out, the Governor will choose the replacement for two years. After power grabs in Wake County and Greensboro by politicians this year, this latest move is just par for the course. 

From the editorial,

N.C. Supreme Court Justice Bob Edmunds of Greensboro won re-election in 2008 with 51 percent of the vote against Wake Forest University law professor Suzanne Reynolds. He’ll likely have an easier time in 2016 since no one can run against him.

The state legislature this year established retention elections for sitting justices of the N.C. Supreme Court. Most voters probably missed the brief debate.

The election will amount to one question on the ballot: whether to retain the justice for another eight-year term or remove him. If voters choose to remove him, the governor will appoint a replacement to serve for two years, when a traditional election would be held. Edmunds is the only justice up for election next year.

In theory, the retention election system is sound. A justice first must be elected against an opponent. After that, he should be removed only if voters find some fault in his performance. Nineteen other states use retention elections, and usually they don’t attract as much special-interest money during campaigns. The N.C. Bar Association endorsed the change.

Yet, as usual, the Republican-led legislature had a partisan motive. Although the court is officially nonpartisan, Edmunds is a Republican and the court has a 4-3 majority of Republican justices. Even if Edmunds is voted out, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory could appoint another Republican to the court. So, the GOP majority is guaranteed to continue at least until 2018.

The legislature also added to a confusing mixture of election processes for state courts. Each level has a different way of electing judges. In Guilford County, for example, District Court judges are elected countywide but Superior Court judges are elected in districts. They are nonpartisan. State Court of Appeals judges are chosen in contested nonpartisan elections, but candidates’ party affiliations will appear on the ballot. No party label will be listed with Edmunds’ name in his retention election.

There’s another problem. The change to retention elections required a state constitutional amendment, a lawsuit filed Monday contends.

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