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John R. Wester: The danger of partisan judicial races in North Carolina

John R. Wester: The danger of partisan judicial races in North Carolina

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The judges on our ballots tend to draw little notice, especially this fall as we face deep political divisions and the tragedy of COVID-19. Our current judicial elections hold high significance, however, even on the numbers alone. On the 2016 ballot, only one seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court was open. This November’s ballot displays three open seats (out of seven) for the Supreme Court and five open seats (out of 15) for the Court of Appeals. The term for each judge we elect is eight years.

Were Paul Revere riding through North Carolina today, he might well be warning: “The ads are coming! The ads are coming!” Advertisements for statewide judicial races will hit the airwaves and social media outlets any day now. Candidates and so-called “dark-money” groups spent nearly $3.5 million on television ads in 2016 for one seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court. The source of this funding was largely undisclosed. Will we know the sources of the funding, sure to be higher, in this November’s election?

From 2004 to 2018, statewide judicial races did not include political party affiliation for any candidate on the ballot. The General Assembly reversed this standard for the 2018 election, so every candidate running for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals now has an R or a D beside his or her name. In 2019, the General Assembly added partisan labels to those running for Superior and District Courts. These changes, including the millions spent to elect judges, have a common denominator: an attempt to turn those pursuing judicial service into politicians.

Yet the concept of judges as politicians runs contrary to our Founders’ ideal that those who serve in courts would not serve partisan goals. In that fundamental respect, our judges stand apart from those who run for legislative and executive office. Integral to the genius of separating powers among the branches of our government, and central to securing checks and balances, is a judiciary independent of, not beholden to, any political party or faction. The simple purpose of this design is to give the public an unshakable confidence in the fair, impartial administration of justice.

The oath our judges take pledges allegiance to the Constitution and to the rule of law. It says nothing about a political party. After all, what is the relevance of a political party — or the frequent companion terms “liberal” and “conservative” — to a breach of contract case, to a domestic violence case or to a disputed will? As Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, introducing “personal and party attachments and enmities into the judiciary fails to advance the interests of justice or the public good.“ So it is here, today.

For sure, nothing I write today will change anything you will see on your ballot. My hope is to encourage your nonpartisan evaluation of each candidate, with the help of reliable resources. Those include The Charlotte Observer/News & Observer Voter Guide, and the North Carolina Common Cause Voter Guide, available on their respective websites. These voter guides will inform you, not attempt to persuade you.

The decisions our judges make can fundamentally change the lives of individuals and businesses. The stakes are sufficiently high that the votes we cast on the judicial section of our ballot demand our finest exertion of citizenship.

John R. Wester practices law with Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson, P.A. in Charlotte and is a past president of the North Carolina Bar Association. This column appeared originally in The Charlotte Observer and The (Raleigh) News & Observer.

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