Groups alert public to GOP-led assault on courts in the state legislature
MORGANTON, N.C. – EqualityNC and North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections (NCVCE) held a press conference in downtown Morganton on Monday, May 14 to address the threats to judicial independence in North Carolina.
The gathering of advocates coincided with a special session of the North Carolina Supreme Court held at the Old Historic Burke County Courthouse. The justices heard two cases in a historical nod to the days when the court would adjourn from Raleigh during the summer and reconvene in Morganton because it was cooler.
Gathering in the grass square of the old court house, speakers at the news conference argued that the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) has proposed several measures aimed at destroying the historical independence enjoyed by the state’s judiciary, and replacing it with one rife with partisan political control.
“An independent judiciary and fair court system has been a hallmark of North Carolina’s court system since the system was created in the 1950s,” said NCVCE Director Melissa Kromm. “Dismantling our current court system for the sake of rank partisan politics should be of grave concern for North Carolinians.”
Among the actions taken by the NCGA that the groups pointed to as most concerning are House Bill (HB) 717, which was passed by the House; Senate Bill (SB) 698, which has been introduced; and, legislative appointment of judges by the NCGA, which has been proposed.
According to the groups, HB 717 “Gerrymanders the judicial system, just like they did with the unconstitutional legislative maps. Nearly half of all black judges would be packed into a district with another incumbent, forcing them to run against each other or step down.” SB 698, according to the groups, “Cuts all judges’ terms to two years, forcing judges to campaign and hold political fundraisers instead of dispensing justice. A judge elected to an eight-year term in 2016 would be forced to run again in 2018 after having their term cut.”
Legislative appointments, the groups noted, “Eliminates judicial elections altogether, letting politicians rig the system by cherry-picking judges who will rule based on political ideology and rubber-stamp their radical agenda.”
Kromm and other speakers noted that minority populations are deeply concerned about the proposed changes since the judicial system often serves as a check-and-balance to injustices underpinned by societal prejudice and discrimination.
“The LGBTQ community certainly understands the danger of stacking a court system through partisan politics rather than a process that tries to ensure a fair and impartial judicial system in North Carolina,” said Matt Hirschy of EqualityNC. “A fair and balanced judiciary is essential to equality, especially in North Carolina.”
Kromm said also, “We are here today to protect the institutions of our democracy. When our rights have been under attack the courts have been the vehicle to protect our rights. But unfortunately, court bashing has become an epidemic across this country as many seek to quash an independent judiciary. And unfortunately, North Carolina is leading the pack in these attacks.”
She continued, “We’ve seen this legislature attack our courts by eliminating judicial public financing for the election of judges, be the first state in 100 years to turn from nonpartisan judicial elections to partisan judicial elections, eliminate three judges from the Court of Appeals and eliminate the 2018 judicial primary. Yes, they eliminated an election!”
Kromm insisted, “It’s clear the legislature wants to cripple the courts and punish the people of North Carolina, all to grease the wheels of partisan politics. The thing is, judges don’t wear red robes or blue robes they wear black robes. They are meant to be non-partisan.”
Also speaking was the Rev. Susan Walker Smith, pastor of Emanuel Reformed Church in Lincoln County. She said, “Faith communities understand the importance of judicial independence. … There should be a strong sense of alarm within us – especially faith communities – when judicial independence is threatened.
“Minority communities – like faith communities – are allowed to flourish because of a judiciary unfettered by political or religious ideology. Judicial independence works to protect such diversity and in doing so works to promote a more just and hospitable society. With that understanding, faith communities surely must stand as guardians over judicial independence.”
Seth Loven, a local advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Morganton and surrounding communities, spoke also, saying, “… our LGBTQ community … has faced a barrage of state legislation over the years that used political ideology and religious ideology to support legalized discrimination.”
He added, “But discrimination cannot be legal, at least according to the U.S. Constitution. For years we have looked to our judicial system for remedy when that premise is under assault. Such remedy depends on judicial independence and it exists to protect any group or individual from injustice. We must stand against any effort to steal it away.”
In addition to speakers, EqualityNC and NCVCE provided information from Fair Courts North Carolina, an online campaign to protect fair and impartial courts. According to the handout, “Politicians in Raleigh are trying to gain partisan control over the courts and rig the system in their favor. First, they canceled primary elections for judges, and now the politicians want to cancel judicial elections altogether and simply appoint judges themselves.” It continues:
- Our courts need more independence and less partisanship, not the other way around. If our state legislature appoints judges instead of the voters, the politicians will cherry-pick judges who tilt the scales based on political ideology, not fairness.
- Politicians are trying to gain partisan control over the courts and rig the system so they can enact their extreme agenda in spite of the will of the people. By changing the rules of the game, they’ll be able to continue to give tax breaks to millionaires, cut funding for public schools, and protect corporate polluters.
- Overall confidence in our court system is at an all-time low. This scheme by politicians to rig the judicial system in their own favor will only further erode people’s faith in the courts to provide justice fairly and impartially, free from the influence of big money.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2018