Since at least 2015 North Carolina’s legislature has taken a particular interest in redrawing the maps for the state’s judicial districts (see here). Having switched to partisan judicial races in the last 12 months, the anticipation was that NC judges would run in primaries in the existing districts in the 2018. Now, however, it appears there will be no primaries at all.
SB 656, entitled the Electoral Freedom Act of 2017, includes various changes to election laws in the state. Most critically for the judiciary, however, was Section 4, which eliminates the 2019 primaries for judges and district attorneys.
North Carolina’s governor vetoed the bill, claiming in part that this denied people the right to vote on their judges and was a first step to transfer the power to select judges away from the people and to the legislature. News reports indicate a “assisted appointment” selection plan has been discussed in the North Carolina General Assembly that would effective give the legislature control over initial selection/appointment to judicial office.
The legislature then proceeded to override the veto.
Meanwhile, the effort to redraw judicial districts (HB 717) was approved by the House in October and is in the Senate.
A plan to restructure North Carolina’s entire judicial election map was approved in committee earlier this week but appears to have been blocked from a floor vote.
HB 717 as originally filed in April would have altered a few judicial election districts. The amendment, offered according to news reports with little or no notice in the House Judiciary I committee, would have instead restructured all judicial divisions and districts in the state. Opponents accused the sponsors of wanting to gerrymander the judicial districts in favor of Republicans. The lead author claimed he was correcting an existing pro-Democratic gerrymander of the districts. The author did acknowledge during the committee hearing that the new maps were drawn without input from judges, prosecutors (whose lines would also be redrawn), court clerks, or the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts.
Although the plan did come out of committee, objections to the bill swiftly reduced the odds of a floor vote in the House this session and HB 717 has been sent back to committee (Elections and Ethics Law).
North Carolina’s governor has vetoed an effort by the legislature to reduce that state’s intermediate appellate court (Court of Appeals) from 15 judges down to 12.
The veto message reads in operative part
Fewer judges will increase the court’s workload and delay the people’s access to timely appears and decisions. The bill is an attempt by a political party to stack the Court of Appeals. Additionally, I believe the legislation is unconstitutional.”
As I noted here, opponents claim the bill is a political move by the Republican controlled legislature to avoid giving the Democratic governor the power to fill interim vacancies set to occur as several members of the court are forced into mandatory retirement in the next few years. Proponents argue that that Court of Appeals’ caseload has dropped thus there isn’t the need for as many judges. They also note provisions in the bill that shift some cases directly to the Supreme Court.
The bill now goes back to the House which has scheduled an override vote for April 26.
Plans to reduce the North Carolina Court of Appeals from 15 members down to 12 have cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee having been previously approved by the full House.
HB 239 would reduce the court from 15 to 12 by attrition; no judges would lose their office. Opponents claim it is a political move by the Republican controlled legislature to avoid giving the Democratic governor the power to fill interim vacancies set to occur as several members of the court are forced into mandatory retirement in the next few years. Proponents argue that that Court of Appeals’ caseload has dropped thus there isn’t the need for as many judges. They also note provisions in the bill that shift some cases directly to the Supreme Court.
HB 239 now goes to the Senate Rules Committee.
A North Carolina bill (HB 492) to increase penalties for attacks and threats on judges, clerks, and other court staff was introduced in the House earlier this week.
G.S. § 14?16.6 makes it a Class I felony to assault a “court officer” which includes judges/justices, magistrates, clerks of superior court, acting clerks, assistant or deputy clerks, and others. If a deadly weapon is used or serious bodily injury occurs, this is increased to a Class F felony. Under HB 492 this would increase to a Class H or Class E felony, respectively.
G.S. § 14?16.7 makes it a Class I felony to threaten to inflict serious bodily injury upon or to kill a “court officer”. Under HB 492 this would increase to a Class H felony.
Finally, for other court employees, HB 492 makes “simple assault” on any officer or employee of state or local government a Class I felony. State law (G.S. § 14?33) otherwise makes “simple assault” a Class 2 misdemeanor.
HB 492 has been filed in the House State and Local Government I Committee.
The North Carolina Senate has voted to override the governor’s veto of HB 100, a bill to take return the state’s trial court races back to partisan contests. The House had voted to override earlier this week (discussed here).
The legislature had already in a December 2016 special session moved to take appellate races in the state back to partisan.
A plan to switch North Carolina’s trial court races back to partisan contests was vetoed by Governor Roy Cooper. In his veto message for HB 100 Cooper indicated
North Carolina wants its judges to be fair and impartial, and partisan politics has no place on the judges’ bench. We need less politics in the courtroom, not more.
Judges make tough decisions on child abuse, divorce, property disputes, drunk driving, domestic violence and other issues that should be free from politics. This bill reverses that progress.
We should let people elect judges based on their experience and ability to do the job, not which party they pick.
I am also concerned that judges who have chosen to register as unaffiliated voters so as to avoid partisan politics now have a difficult path to getting on the ballot.
A vote to override the veto in the House is set for March 22. The original vote in the House was 65-51 with 1 not voting and 3 absent; proponents would need 3/5ths of those present and voting (60 votes) to override in the House. In the Senate the vote was 32-15 with 3 absent; they would 30 to override.
The North Carolina House in the last 24 hours has adopted major changes to the state’s judiciary, already sending some to the governor’s desk.
HB 100 as amended by the Senate would return races for Superior and District Courts to partisan races. The legislature in a late 2016 special session had already returned that state’s appellate races back to partisan ones. The House, having agreed to a Senate amendment, will now send HB 100 to the governor. It is unclear what the reaction will be, since the governor was the lead author of the bill making Superior Court races nonpartisan in the first place.
HB 239 approved by the full House a few hours ago is a plan to reduce the state’s Court of Appeals from 15 judges down to 12. No judges would be forced out of office, instead when a seat becomes vacant for whatever reason “the seat is abolished.” It has been sent to the Senate.
HB 240 as discussed here removes the governor’s power to fill interim vacancies in District Court and transfers that power to the legislature itself. An amendment to have the Chief Judge of the District Court or Chief Justice (if there was no Chief Judge) make the pick instead was defeated. It has been ordered engrossed and will likely go to the Senate shortly.
HB 241 as discussed here removes the power of North Carolina governors to name Special Superior Court Judges (SSCJs) and transfers that power to the legislature itself. It has been sent to the Senate.
Plans to remove the power of North Carolina’s governors to appoint some judges and transfer that authority to the legislature first discussed here continue apace.
Currently when an interim vacancy occurs in a District Court, the bar for the judicial district nominates 5 people for the governor, but the governor is free to select whomever he or she wishes. This is a change from several years ago when the bar’s 5 names were binding on the governor (Section 2 of SB 321 of 2013 as discussed here).
HB 240 as filed earlier this week would provide that where an interim vacancy occurs in a District Court judgeship the General Assembly would take the lead in this area.
- If in session, the General Assembly would pick the judge.
- If out of session, the Speaker of the House and President Pro Tempore of the Senate could leave the vacancy open until the General Assembly comes back.
- If out of session, the Speaker/President Pro Tempore could jointly submit the name of someone to the Governor who could then “confirm the nominee” no later than 10 days later.
HB 240 has been filed in the House Judiciary IV Committee.
The last 12 hours have been very busy for judicial selection in North Carolina. I mentioned a few minutes ago that the NC House may remove the power of the state’s governor to appoint Special Superior Court Judges. In addition, the push to change North Carolina trial court elections back to partisan races cleared the Senate yesterday.
HB 100 as approved by the Senate tracks closely with the House approved version in that both would make Superior and District Court races partisan again. The differences in the versions appear to focus on how to handle unaffiliated candidates who attempt to get on the ballot.
If approved by the House again, the bill would go to the state’s Democratic governor who, while a member of the legislature, voted to make the races nonpartisan in the first place. Then-state senator Cooper was the lead sponsor of the efforts to make Superior Court races nonpartisan in the 1995 regular session (SB 961) and the ultimately successful SB 41 of the 1996 2nd Special Session. When the District Courts moved to nonpartisan in 2001 (SB 119) Cooper was Attorney General.