- Associated Press - Thursday, June 4, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The North Carolina legislature formally agreed Thursday to try another method of electing some judges to the state’s highest court.

The General Assembly approved a bill that gives most sitting state Supreme Court justices the option to be re-elected to additional eight-year terms in an up-or-down statewide vote, without a challenger. “Retention elections” for appellate court seats are used in 19 states, according to the National Center for State Courts.

With the House accepting Senate changes, the bill now goes to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who must decide whether to let it become law or veto it. There was no immediate response Thursday to an email to McCrory’s office about the measure.

Retention elections are promoted by some attorney groups and judicial reformers as a way to scale back electoral politics in selecting judges and appeals court members. They also say it could reduce the amount of campaign money spent by candidates and independent groups.

Bill sponsor Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, said he’s been trying for 20 years to get a new method passed for choosing judges.

Proposals have included a more formal appointment or confirmation process and retention elections. Some would require amendments to the state Constitution. No amendments were needed in the latest bill because justices would still be elected by the state’s voters, in keeping with the Constitution.

The changes would apply to a justice who first wins a conventional head-to-head election against an opponent. The official must step down if a majority of voters oppose a new term. The governor would fill the vacancy with someone until the next statewide election within two years. Illinois and Pennsylvania use a similar system, the state courts center said.

The House in April approved a version of the bill that would have offered retention elections to judges of the intermediate level Court of Appeals, but the Senate narrowed it to the Supreme Court only. That would mean in 2016 the change would only apply to one person - Associate Justice Bob Edmunds, the only incumbent up for re-election on the seven-member court. He’d have to decide by this July 1 whether to submit to a retention election.

Democrats complained the Senate bill looks like it’s designed to help Edmunds. While judicial elections are officially nonpartisan, Edmunds is a registered Republican.

“We’re setting up a process for Justice Edmunds and potentially a different process for anybody else,” said Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland. He voted for the earlier House version but urged colleagues to reject the Senate version so that the House could negotiate a final bill that restores the Court of Appeals races.

But Daughtry said there was no trickery on his part and that the retention option for Supreme Court was a good first step.

“It’s an attempt to change the way that we elected judges and keep as much of the politics out of it” as possible,” he said.

The House voted 65-49 to accept the Senate changes. All Democrats voting joined seven Republicans in opposition.

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