3 states consider ending partisan judicial races, but 2 other states debate bringing them back; other states want an end to partisan election of clerks of court

Years ago, I noted the North Carolina/West Virginia paradox. As West Virginia moved to expand its public financing of judicial races (court of last resort at least), North Carolina moved to end their program. West Virginia moved to end partisan judicial races at almost the same moment North Carolina moved to bring their judicial races back to partisan.

The above dynamic is playing out in the 2019 legislative sessions in a host of states: one state moving one way on judicial selection, while a nearby (and sometimes neighboring) state considers going the other way.

Partisan to Nonpartisan
New Mexico SJR 12 would end partisan races for Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, District Court, and Metropolitan Court. A similar plan was introduced as SJR 10 of 2017 (discussed here). The 2017 effort was approved in the Senate Rules Committee but proceed no further.

Mississippi HB 1490 addresses a quirk in Mississippi law. The state has previously ended partisan judicial elections for all courts except the state’s lowest (justice court). HB 1490 would switch these elections to partisan and provide that judges elected to these courts would be considered legally “part-time” judges and eligible to continue to practice law.

South Carolina HB 3034 would require nonpartisan elections in probate courts. Interesting, South Carolina’s probate court judges are the only judges in the state subject to voters. Most (Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Circuit, and Family) are chosen by the legislature. Magistrates Court judges are appointed by the governor with legislative confirmation. Municipal Court judges are appointed by local government.

Nonpartisan to Partisan
Kentucky HB 123 would amend the state’s constitution to require partisan elections for judges in the state. The move seems, at least in part, prompted by a recent decision of the state’s supreme court striking down the governor’s and legislature’s pension reform plan as unconstitutional.

South Dakota SJR 3 would end nonpartisan elections for all judges.

Clerk Races
While a great deal of focus is on judicial races, another key judiciary-related office is that of Clerk of Court. While there have been several attempts in states to make these races nonpartisan over the years, none have succeeded. Nevertheless, the topic is up for debate this year in the following states:

Mississippi SB 2374 would convert several county offices to nonpartisan including Chancery Clerk and Circuit Clerk.

Nebraska LB 72, LB 144, and LB 211 would allow for some of all county officers, including clerks of court, to be elected on a nonpartisan basis. The bills differ in how that change would occur: LB 72 and LB 211 would simply convert these elections to nonpartisan directly. HB 144 would require voters to approve such a change on a county-by-county basis.

South Carolina HB 3032 would end the practice of electing on a partisan basis the Clerk of Common Pleas who serves ex officio as the clerk for all courts of record in a county (unless specified by another statute).