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A bill filed Thursday in the General Assembly again seeks the restoration of partisan judicial elections in North Carolina.
The act is meant to give the state’s voters better ideas about the backgrounds and positions of candidates for the various judge seats on the ballot, explained primary sponsor Sen. Thom Goolsby (R-New Hanover).
“Here, we always know who our judicial candidates are,” Goolsby said, “but there are places where folks put themselves on the ballot [and] nobody knows who they are. Nobody knows where they come from. They’ve not been vetted by any body or any party, and they just pop up on ballots.
“This would be a way for those folks to be further identified.”
As filed, the bill aims to repeal the state’s current law providing for nonpartisan judicial races and establish that they will follow the same candidacy and filing processes as do other offices elected by party, like district attorney.
Justices of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, superior courts and district courts would be affected, the change a flip from legislative amendments that began nearly two decades ago.
Legislators amended North Carolina’s laws in 1996 to make superior court races nonpartisan; another amendment in 2001 did the same for district court, according to the N.C. Bar Association. The remaining justice posts were rendered nonpartisan the following year with the passage of the Judicial Campaign Reform Act.
Goolsby observed that those changes were timed with the successes of Republicans in judicial races.
With Republicans now in firm control of the General Assembly and the governor’s office, Goolsby said he believes the bill’s chances of passing are strong.
He added the concept is now valued by both parties, noting Senate Democratic Leader Martin Nesbitt Jr. of Asheville has voiced support for the reversion.
A similar bill introduced in the 2011-12 session by Sen. Jerry W. Tillman (R-Randolph) cleared the Senate and won bipartisan support in a second reading in the House before it was re-referred to that chamber’s elections committee, where it proceeded no further.
Tillman is also a primary sponsor of the current bill.
New Hanover and Pender counties’ ballots in the most recent general election, in November 2012, included nine judicial seats.
Of their victors, six were registered Democrats: Court of Appeals Judges Linda McGee and Wanda Bryant and District 5 Judges J.H. Corpening, Richard Russell Davis, Jeffrey Evan Noecker and Robin Wicks Robinson.
The remaining three were registered Republicans: Paul Newby (N.C. Supreme Court); Chris Dillon (N.C. Court of Appeals); and Sandra Ray Criner (District 5).
Their party affiliations were not expressed on the ballot.
In Brunswick County, whose ballot also featured the higher court names, four seats in District 13 were on the line.
Their winners were Democrats Jerry Jolly and Scott Ussery and Republicans Pauline Hankins and Marion Warren.
(District 13 also includes the counties of Columbus, where Jolly lives, and Bladen, where Ussery lives.)
More information on the current Senate bill is viewable here.