Retired Judges of Both Parties: North Carolinians Must Fight to Preserve Independent Judiciary

August 30, 2017 - Published in The Progressive Pulse by Rob Schofield

As NC Policy Watch reporter Melissa Boughton has detailed at great length in recent months, conservative efforts to transform the North Carolina court system from an independent branch of government into one that is partisan and subservient to the Republican leadership of the General Assembly continue apace. From the demise of public financing for judicial campaigns to the reintroduction of party affiliations for judicial candidates to the recent efforts to alter the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court and gerrymander judicial election districts, Republican leaders have been pretty straightforward about what they hope to accomplish.

Happily, a real, bipartisan and potentially formidable push-back is starting to take shape. Confirmation of this latter phenomenon was on full display last night at a standing-room-only forum in Raleigh hosted by a trio of good government nonprofits, PolitcaNC, the League of Women Voters of Wake County and NC Voters for Clean Elections. The event (the title of which featured the rhetorical question “Do Independent Courts Matter in North Carolina?”) drew a crowd of more than 100 people to hear from a bipartisan group of retired state court judges who all answered a resounding “yes” to the title question.

The night was kicked off with brief introductory remarks from state Rep. Joe John (D-Wake), a former state Court of Appeals judge who has, since entering the General Assembly in January, quickly become a prominent spokesperson on the issue and a defender of judicial independence. John turned the event over to the moderator for the evening, former Republican Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr.

In addition to interjecting his own observations and lamenting recent trends at several points, Orr posed questions to a panel of three former appellate judges that included former Supreme Court justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson and former Court of Appeals judges, Linda Stephens and Doug McCullough. Timmons-Goodson and Stephens are Democrats and McCullough is a Republican.

During the Q&A discussion that followed, all four speakers were critical of recent developments. McCullough was especially critical of the current leadership of the General Assembly and any notion — as has been discussed on Jones Street — of adopting a system in which judges would be selected by the General Assembly rather than elected. He observed that in such a system, judges who ruled counter to the wishes of legislative leaders “would be gone.” All three judges agreed that preserving judicial independence and a system in which judges call cases “as they see them” is vital. Stephens described neutrality as essential to the “legitimacy” of the system.

All four judges related stories in which they experienced what might be termed “political blow-back” in response to rulings they had issued. Orr, in particular, told of receiving a critical communique from NC Citizens for Business and Industry (now the NC Chamber) when he voted against the constitutionality of state-fundedbusiness incentives while on the Supreme Court. All four also described how they negotiated the challenges that come with running for political office, raising campaign contributions and seeking endorsements. Stephens was especially critical of the legislature’s decision to abandon public financing of elections and all four expressed frustration that deep-pocketed groups and individuals from outside North Carolina wield increasing influence in judicial elections.

The evening concluded with a discussion of how those who hope to preserve judicial independence can fight back. All speakers agreed that community education, activism and organizing will be essential, but it was Doug McCullough who offered the most pointed comments. The Republican said that the best hope lies with convincing state business leaders to speak up. He said that legislative leaders believe that they “bought off” the business community by establishing and protecting the state business court, but that recent changes will jeopardize the kind of fair and neutral courts business needs to thrive. He said it will be essential to convince business leaders to tell lawmakers that “this [the ongoing effort to politicize the judiciary] has got to stop.”