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Judicial Selection And Retention In North Carolina

Position: NCCBI firmly supports continued changes in the way we select and retain judges in North Carolina so that purely political challenges to sitting judges will not be permitted.

Explanation: North Carolina has good reason to be proud of its civil justice environment, including a stable judiciary composed of learned, impartial, independent, and career-minded judges. This is due to the fact that, even though our Constitution provides for popular election of judges, and they all stand for reelection periodically, almost all of them were initially appointed by our governors, and, until recently, were frequently reelected.

This situation has changed. The rise of the two party system has made elections contested and more competitive. Special interests at both ends of the political spectrum have contributed heavily to candidates in judicial elections. In one hotly contested election in 1994, plaintiffs' attorneys gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to someone of no judicial experience to unseat a sitting Supreme Court justice because of his perceived conservative views. Although the plaintiffs' lawyers' candidate was eventually defeated, in all more than three-quarters of a million dollars were spent by three candidates for this one seat on the Court.

Elections by popular vote are for those who want to put in place certain governmental policies so they can attract a constituency. This is not the case for judges who, except in a very limited sense, do not establish policy. Judges decide cases. They consider cases which are properly before them and brought by aggrieved parties. For the most part, they decide them on the basis of legal Constitutional principles, statutes, common law, and precedents. Judues must often make decisions which are NOT popular.

The judiciary is answerable to the people because the people can change the Constitution, and legislatures can change the common law and the statutes. Also, North Carolina judges are susceptible to administrative removal from office by action of the Judicial Standards Commission and the Supreme Court for questions of performance or ethics. Other officeholders are not accountable in this way.

NCCBI applauds the legislature for its first move in this direction: the approval of non-partisan elections of Superior Court judges who will run and be elected only in their own districts. We are also encouraged by the increased use of alternative dispute resolution, and urge its expansion. Finally, the legislature should carefully weigh the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Justice and the Courts for further meaningful reform.

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