Letter to the Editor: Concerns About Appointing Rather Than Electing Judges

[This letter was submitted by LWV-Wake member Marcia Ballard and published in The Carolinian.]

The Carolinian - January 11, 2018

I have grave concerns about appointing rather than electing judges to courts. It appears that some in the General Assembly are looking to change how electorates of North Carolina choose who is the most qualified to administer justice.  As an African American woman, I am concerned with what seems to be a desire by some law makers to turn the clock back to a time when those who looked like me experienced egregious civil inequality by the legal justice system. To prevent this, the people’s voice must continually be part of how we select judges to ensure we are choosing judges that can give fair and balanced justice to all the citizens of the state, not just for those who appointed them or because of their party affiliations. 

When I returned home from a meeting held at the legislature on December 6, I read the hand-outs from the meeting. Understandably, some of the information appeared to be designed to persuade those in attendance that appointments to the judiciary were preferable to leaving it to the electorate. Indeed, the mythic trajectory depicted in “Judicial Selection in North Carolina 1776-2017” presented by Dean Brinkley and Professor John V. Orth gave me pause, especially the section on the 110 years between 1776-1886. It may have been a “Relatively tranquil period for judicial service” but for the enslaved of South and North Carolina, the iron grip of bondage was securely fastened by the legal system and upheld by the courts of this state giving birth to over 300 years of hell on earth.

One of the justices during “the tranquil” period shown in the presentation piqued my curiosity. In researching Justice Ruffin, I came upon the following:

The ruling by Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin in 1830 in the case of North Carolina v. Mann upheld the law that slave owners were ruled to have absolute authority over their slaves and could not be found guilty of committing violence against them. On the other hand, he could not escape the fact that slavery was perfectly legal in North Carolina.

In contrast, while reading “Tuesday, February 11, 1868: The Day North Carolina Chose Direct Elections of Judges—A Transcript of the Debates from the 1868 Constitutional Convention”, I came across the comments by State Senator Abraham H. Galloway who was one of three Black senators and seventeen Black representatives in the North Carolina General Assembly in 1868 and a former enslaved person. He understood the necessity given the history of North Carolina’s judicial system to voice an affirmative on electing judges:

[A.H.] GALLOWAY (negro) favored election by the people. He said that he would make an assertion, and was personally responsible for it, that the Judiciary in New Hanover was a bastard born in sin and secession. In their eyes, it was a crime to be a black or loyal man. He said that the Judge of the Criminal Court had already sent men to the work-house merely to prevent their voting upon the ratification of the Constitution.

When it comes to selecting the judiciary in North Carolina, I agree with those gentlemen from the 1868 convention, both Black and White, “That Judges of the Supreme and Superior Courts should be elected by the people.”

The General Assembly of North Carolina should not be looking for ways to prevent the voices of all the people from being heard in the selection of our State Judges.

Marcia Ballard