North Carolina: House bill overhauls state’s magistrate judge system

A bill filed in the North Carolina House earlier this week would overhaul the way the state’s magistrate judges operate. HB 126 as filed

  1. Directs the Administrative Office of the Courts to develop a code of conduct for all magistrates by July 1, 2018.
  2. Gives chief district court judges the authority to discipline magistrates including a letter of caution, a written reprimand, or up to a 10-day suspension without pay.
  3. Allows magistrates to be assigned to temporary duty in another county; current law only allows for such a move “during an emergency.”
  4. Requires chief district court judges of each county to appoint a chief magistrate.

HB 126 has been filed in the House Judiciary III Committee.


North Carolina: bill to return trial court contests to partisan races clears committee; other states moving in opposite direction

The North Carolina House Elections Committee earlier today approved HB 100, a bill to return the state’s trial court (Superior & District) races to partisan. Media reports here. The bill follows laws enacted in the last 2 years to make appellate races (Supreme Court and Court of Appeals) partisan.

As I noted when this issue came up in 2015, the trend in other states has been away from partisan races and towards nonpartisan ones. As recently as 24 hours ago a New Mexico constitutional amendment to move that state from partisan to nonpartisan judicial races cleared a key committee (discussed here).

  • 2015: West Virginia ended partisan elections for all courts via statute discussed here
  • 2000: Arkansas voters approved Amendment 80, a rewrite of the state‚Äôs Judiciary Article, which included nonpartisan elections for all judges.
  • 1994: Mississippi’s legislature enacted the Nonpartisan Judicial Elections Act, moving all judicial races (except Justice of the Peace Court) to nonpartisan.


North Carolina: having ended nonpartisan elections for appellate courts, legislature moves to return partisan elections to trial courts

Last December the North Carolina legislature in a special session returned appellate court races in that state back to partisan contests. Now the push to return trial court races to partisan ones is set for the 2017 session.

HB 100 as filed earlier this week would make Superior and District Court races partisan affairs starting in January 2018. Superior Courts (the state’s general jurisdiction court) have been nonpartisan since a 1996 law while the District Court races (the state’s sole limited jurisdiction court) have been nonpartisan since a 2001 enactment as discussed here.

HB 100 has been filed in the House Elections and Ethics Law Committee.

North Carolina: surprise special session called bill restructure appeals challenges states laws create unique en banc review system make appellate races partisan

I mentioned that there was speculation that the special session called by NC’s governor to deal with Hurricane Matthew relief might turn into an opportunity to expand the state’s supreme court from 7 to 9 members, giving the outgoing Republican governor the chance to name the 2 new seats.

That plan never materialized, however immediately at the close of the Hurricane Matthew special session, another called by the legislature’s GOP majority itself was started and this one included an omnibus bill that would restricted the state’s judiciary.

First, SB 4 as introduced in the 2016 Fourth Extra Session crams together numerous different items regarding a new Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement to take over from the existing Board of Elections, and other similar moves.

Court-specifically, the bill repeats an effort made over the last several years to reintroduce partisan races for the state’s appellate courts. As it stands the Supreme Court races are nonpartisan and in Court of Appeals races candidates may, but are not required, to put party labels next to their names.

Second, on the appellate front, challenges to state laws currently go to the state’s trial courts and then from there to the Supreme Court, hopping over the Court of Appeals.

Appeal lies of right directly to the Supreme Court from any order or judgment of a court, either final or interlocutory, that holds that an act of the General Assembly is facially invalid on the basis that the act violates the North Carolina Constitution or federal law.

Under SB 4 the appeals would now lie directly to the Court of Appeals. Currently the 15-member court sits in panels of 3 and does not have an en banc procedure. SB 4 would create such an en banc practice and effectively require en banc review if any judge dissented from the original 3-judge panel.

An appeal of right [to the Supreme Court] pursuant to this subdivision is not effective until after the Court of Appeals sitting en banc has rendered a decision in the case, if the Court of Appeals hears the case en banc, or until after the time for filing a motion for rehearing of the cause by the Court of Appeals has expired or the Court of Appeals has denied the motion for rehearing.

SB 4 has already cleared the Senate Redistricting Committee and is now in Senate Finance. UPDATE: Appears to have cleared Senate Finance, now heading to Senate floor.

First, Arizona, then Georgia, will North Carolina too expand its supreme court in 2016? It was tried (and failed) in 2013.

I’ve written about the ever growing interest in state legislatures lately to add, or reduce, the number of members of their courts of last resort. Arizona did it this year. So did Georgia. Now, a plan first circulated in 2013 in North Carolina to expand that state’s supreme court from 7 to 9 members, this time in a lame duck special session, may be in the offing and might allow a governor (who could be voted out of office, the ballots are still being counted) to pick the 2 new justices.

News reports indicate plans are circulating among legislative leaders to expand the court in a December special session called to deal with the impact of Hurricane Matthew. While the constitution (Art. II, Sec. 24) gives a list of things a special session cannot consider like bridges and juror pay, the supreme court’s not on that list.

And as to the supreme court, North Carolina is a “minimum/maximum” state: the constitution provides a minimum number of justices (Chief Justice + six Associate Justices) but then provides “the General Assembly may increase the number of Associate Justices to not more than eight.” And unlike 26 states, the legislature is free to do this on their own: they don’t need voter approval (24 states) or the court’s consent (Alaska and South Dakota).

This is just the latest attempt to expand the NC Supreme Court. As I noted in 2013, there was a surprise GOP amendment added to an unrelated bill that was popped into a Senate Rules Committee hearing without warning. It was beaten back only when the House Republican caucus failed to support it.

North Carolina Legislative Year in Review: changes to elections for appellate courts; guns in courtrooms


HB 97 Requires reports to legislature of judges who waive criminal fees. Authorizes courts to create special sessions for “specialized cases or matters…including the holding of family court, drug treatment court, veterans’ court, DWI court, mental health court, or any other innovative use of a session of court.” Requires AOC provide directions. Moves Innocence Inquiry Commission under AOC and directs AOC audit annually. Directs creation of E-Courts Information Technology initiative/plan/advisory committee. Allows for use of tech funds to pay for data connectivity. Specifies “neither the Director nor the Administrative Office of the Courts is the custodian of the records of the clerks of superior court or of the electronic data processing records or any compilation of electronic court records or data of the clerks of superior court.”

HB 222 For Supreme Court, requires justices be re-elected by yes/no retention elections. Maintains nonpartisan elections for initial terms.

HB 562 Allows prosecutors to carry firearms into courtrooms.

SB 83 Allows clerks to refuse to accept false liens filed against judges or other public officers and public employees.

SB 161 Allows Supreme Court to sit in its old summer-session chambers in Morganton twice a year.

Pending before Governor

HB 8 For Court of Appeals, permits candidates to place partisan labels next to their names.

North Carolina: plan to switch Court of Appeals races back to partisan contests clears Senate, could be House vote Monday

For years the NC has debated switching the state back to partisan judicial races. Earlier this year the NC legislature approved changes to Supreme Court races, keeping nonpartisan races for initial terms but providing additional terms would be obtained via yes/no retention elections. Now it appears partisan races are coming back on the legislative agenda.

HB 8, as amended and approved by the Senate, would switch races for the Court of Appeals back to partisan races. Under the terms the races would be “open judicial elections with party designations”: judges would not be subject to partisan primaries but would indicate for themselves the party they affiliate with on the ballot. The House approved a similar version of HB 8 earlier in the session.

The House is currently adjourned until Monday.