North Carolina public financing of judicial campaigns survives committee vote, but nonpartisan judicial elections may be repealed

I mentioned in early May a late night, last minute floor amendment to the North Carolina budget that would have killed public financing for judicial elections. That effort was ultimately withdrawn in favor of a preexisting stand alone bill on the subject (HB 452).

HB 452 got its committee hearing on Friday, June 3 and in another surprise, saw its public financing provisions removed. Instead, the version of HB 452 that came out of the House Elections Committee now focuses on ending the state’s nonpartisan elections and returning them to partisan ones.

The committee-approved HB 452 reads very similar to HB 64, which was authored or co-sponsored by 35 of the 67 Republican House members, including the chair of the Elections Committee to which both bills had been referred. Unlike HB 64, HB 452 as amended would NOT allow for straight-ticket voting to affect judicial races. Currently law provides that a straight-party vote does not apply to Presidential races and HB 452 now expands that to include judicial races.

Meanwhile, the Senate has taken testimony on switching from the existing nonpartisan elections to a unique merit selection system. SB 458 contains many of basic provisions associated with a merit selection system: a Judicial Nominating Commission would put forth two names to the Governor to fill a judicial vacancy. The Governor would have to pick from the two. However, unlike most if not all other merit systems which follow with a yes/no retention election, the newly appointed judge would face off against the person NOT chosen by the Governor; the winner would get a regular, full term. Yes/no retention elections would only kick in a) if the person not appointed chose not to run or b) the winner of that initial race was up for re-election thereafter. Check out the coverage of the Senate proposal from our Gavel Grab friends here and here.

It is not clear how far any of these bills will get this year. The House GOP leadership has indicated it wants to adjourn by June 17 but come back for two special sessions over the summer; one on redistricting and one on constitutional amendments. Those special sessions could be key. While the shift from partisan to nonpartisan elections in 2001 for District Court (SB 119) and 2002 for Supreme Court and Court of Appeals (SB 1054) took place in regular sessions, the very first change took place in 1996 for Superior Courts in a special session (SB 41, 1996 Second Special Session) after having been hashed out in the regular session (SB 961 & SB 971 of the 1995 regular session).