This message to voters pertains to one of the six proposed amendments to the Constitution of North Carolina which will be on your ballot.
That amendment would change the way judges are appointed to fill vacancies. For many years, those appointments have been made by the governor, who is elected by all the voters. Under the proposed amendment, appointments would be controlled by legislators — actually the legislative leadership — who are elected by voters in their respective districts.
The way that would work is that when a vacancy occurs, a commission would prepare a list of candidates whose only qualifications must be (1) licensed to practice law, (2) registered to vote and (3) not yet reached retirement age. The commission would make no finding as to fitness for judicial service — no evaluation based on merit. From that list the legislature must choose two or more finalists and the governor can then appoint one of them, and if the governor fails to do that, the legislature does. That scheme enables the legislative leadership to force the appointment of one of its favored candidates who would become a judge who then may rule on the interpretation or validity of laws passed by the legislature. A cozy arrangement! That proposed amendment is opposed by all five living former governors and by all six living former chief justices, Republicans and Democrats. We voters should join them in opposition.
The founders of our state and nation wisely provided for the separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Unlike the governor and legislators, judges don’t “represent” their constituents. Judges are sworn to uphold and apply the Constitution and the laws enacted thereunder. Judges must be independent. Judicial independence can survive only when the powers of each branch of government remain in balance. Defeating the proposed amendment will help preserve the checks and balances on which our system of government depends.
By this postscript I will add that except when vacancies occur we elect judges — an imperfect system. The time has long passed when voters knew, or knew of or anything about, judicial candidates. Votes can be influenced by broadcast sound bites (possibly financed by dark money). We should have a true merit selection system: appointment by the governor from a short list of names submitted by a non-partisan nominating commission. Those names would have been vetted for experience and a deserved reputation for integrity, intellect and judicial demeanor. For decades the legislature has refused to enable citizens to amend the Constitution to add North Carolina to the majority of states with similar appointive systems. Citizens should ask legislators for an opportunity to do that.