General Assembly Hands Cooper His First Veto Override
The Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature on Thursday overrode Gov. Roy Cooper's veto of a bill that makes local judicial elections officially partisan races again.
The Senate completed the override of Cooper's veto — his first as governor — one day after the House voted to do the same. At least three-fifths of the members voting in each chamber agreed to enact the law addressing Superior Court and District Court judgeships over Cooper's objections.
The new law is one of several pieces of legislation approved or debated by Republican lawmakers that are seeking to weaken Democrats and Cooper, with many targeting his ability to shape the state's trial courts.
The override means all judicial elections in North Carolina will be partisan again next year, with party primaries electing nominees and party designations affixed to the general election candidates' names on the ballot. In December, GOP lawmakers passed a law signed by then-Gov. Pat McCrory that made appellate court races partisan again.
In his veto message last week, Cooper said, "North Carolina wants its judges to be fair and impartial, and partisan politics has no place on the judges' bench."
All judicial races used to be partisan affairs a generation ago, but they shifted in the late 1990s and early 2000s to becoming officially nonpartisan. While a state senator, Cooper championed a law that made Superior Court races nonpartisan. Supporters said nonpartisan races promote judicial independence, while critics say it leaves voters more in the dark about the candidates' views and cause many to leave those races blank on their ballots.
During a brief debate Thursday, Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, told colleagues he's wanted a return to partisan races for several years.
"Voters tell me they want to know as much as possible about the judges," Tillman said before the override motion passed 32-15. The legislation, he added, is a "simple matter of providing information."
In highlighting the need for judicial independence, Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake, referred to comments this week by U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch that he's supported by people who believe there aren't Democratic judges or Republican judges, but simply "judges in this country."
In the judiciary, Blue told colleagues, "every one ought to be neutral and not wear party labels."
After the override, Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said in a release that again "legislative Republicans have created a solution in search of a problem to advance a divisive political agenda" that won't help the economy, schools or the middle class.
As Democratic dominance of North Carolina politics waned in the 1970s and 1980s, Republicans began faring better in judicial races and accused Democrats of moving to nonpartisan races because of that success.
Republicans had held a majority on the Supreme Court over the past two decades when it came to party registration of the judges. But Democrats took a 4-3 sat advantage following last November's elections when incumbent Justice Bob Edmunds lost to Mike Morgan.
Other judicial bills that have already passed the House this year would give the legislature the power to fill District Court vacancies and those when Special Superior Court judges step down, and reduce the Court of Appeals from 15 to 12 judges through attrition, such as retirement or resignation. That change would deny Cooper an opportunity to appoint Democrats to fill the next three potential vacancies - all currently held by Republicans.