Some Local Judges Can Stop Statewide Laws, But Should They Have That Power?

Some Local Judges Can Stop Statewide Laws, But Should They Have That Power?

2:25pm Mar 05, 2019
Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, standing left, and Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, standing second from right, exchange comments during a 2018 special session at the General Assembly in Raleigh. Two of the constitutional amendments discussed in that session and approved by voters are now being held up in North Carolina courts. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

A lower court judge in Wake County recently made a dramatic decision that put the fate of two state constitutional amendments into question.

The case is likely to be in legal limbo for a long time.

But Colin Campbell, editor of the NC Insider state government news service, says locally elected superior court judges shouldn’t be handling matters that affect the entire state.

His thoughts appear in an opinion column published in newspapers across North Carolina.

WFDD’s Sean Bueter spoke with Campbell about why he thinks the power of these judges should be reigned in.

Interview Highlights

On the state of North Carolina's legal landscape:

We're in an interesting era in North Carolina politics now where the legislature passes a controversial law and you're almost guaranteed to have a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of what they've done. So you see these kinds of lawsuits a whole lot more now than you have in the past.

And so the question is whether these lawsuits should follow a different path. And I would argue that because a judge who was elected by the voters of Wake County is not going to be accountable to a voter in Guilford County, that that judge shouldn't be the first person to get to rule on whether something fits the constitution or not. It makes more sense, in my mind, to start the process a little bit higher up the legal chain because those [NC Court of Appeals] judges are elected statewide. You'd also have the benefit there of speeding up the legal process. You know, a lot of these lawsuits prompt years of uncertainty while cases go through the legal system [regarding] whether something the legislature and the governor did is going to be allowed to stand, legally or not. And it could take a while before it gets up to the NC Supreme Court for the final ruling.

On why he thinks partisanship is hurting North Carolina's judicial system:

Well we switched just in the last couple of years – and this has been largely at the behest of Republican lawmakers – to a partisan court election system. So in the past you wouldn't necessarily see the affiliation of a judge or judicial candidate on the ballot. Now they're all listed as being a Democrat or a Republican. And I think by doing that, [candidates] have to run more in line with your party and your party's political views. And so I think it's not surprising that this particular ruling comes from a judge who's a Democrat and who happens to be up for re-election in Wake County which leans pretty far to the left in 2020. And so, you can't necessarily say what someone's motivations are but you can certainly guess that that may have crossed their mind somewhere in coming up with these decisions.

On pushback from a former State Supreme Court justice who points out that superior court judges have jurisdiction on statewide issues:

She makes a good point about how the system is structured. Yes, technically, superior court judges are considered state judges and at times they may hear cases outside of their district. There may be somebody who's out sick today and therefore a judge from Wake County is sitting court in Greensboro. And that is indeed something that happens.

But I think at the end of the day you know it comes down to, if we're going to have decisions that affect the entire state, they need to be made by people who are elected by the entire state because there's a fundamental unfairness: if you voted for a cap on taxes or for voter ID, and then your vote is essentially invalidated by someone here in Raleigh, and you go to vote in Davidson County, that guy is not going to be on the ballot. You won't have the opportunity to boot somebody out of office or to hold someone accountable for their actions. So I think, fundamentally, the way the electoral system is set up, you've got to kind of limit how much local judges can do that has a statewide impact.

(Ed.: This transcription has been lightly edited for clarity.)

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