- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:

March 23

Winston-Salem Journal on closing proceedings of the Judicial Standards Commission:

Late in the 16th century, England’s King’s Council developed what, in those days, sounded like a good idea.

Ordinary British courts were afraid to convict prominent people, so the council developed a secret court only for luminaries.

But, over time, these “star chambers” became anything but vehicles of justice. The British monarchy used them as political weapons. Eventually, star chambers inspired America’s founders to insist on open courts.

In 2013, the General Assembly had good intentions in passing a law that closed from public view disciplinary proceedings of the Judicial Standards Commission, thus protecting judges from bad publicity related to baseless accusations. Under previous law, such charges and hearings before the commission were public.

Unfortunately, we don’t see how the change helps judges or the public and this issue highlights the need for better public access to what should be public records.

Under the old system, the Judicial Standards Commission did an initial private investigation of complaints against judges. The matter became public only if the commission found merit to the allegations. An impartial committee then heard both sides of the matter and issued a public ruling.

Now all proceedings will be held in secret. The only public notice of such matters will come when, and if, the N.C. Supreme Court actually approves punishment for a judge, the News & Observer of Raleigh reported.

The public will not know when its judges are being investigated and adjudicated through the system and will also be locked out of the proceedings that determine if those judicial officers violated judicial standards.

For judges, the new secrecy increases, not reduces, the potential for harassment. A judge’s political opponents can file harassing charges, either baseless or with only minimal merit, and burden judges with time-consuming and costly defenses, and the accusers will go unidentified publicly.

Open judicial proceedings are a cherished element of American democracy. The legislature should not have closed these proceedings.




March 25

The Citizen-Times of Asheville on regulating drone use in the state:

Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, have great potential both for good and for bad. North Carolina needs a regulatory system that is strict where it must be and flexible otherwise.

Drones can assess damage from natural disaster at far less cost than entailed from the use of manned aircraft. They can spot disease infestations in crops and check bridges.

They also, if misused, can spy on individuals in what those individuals thought was the privacy of their homes. Think Big Brother in the sky.

Wisely, North Carolina put a moratorium on the use of drones while issues are worked out. The issues now are well enough defined that it’s time to move on with a regulatory framework.

Drone technology is evolving steadily, so the system needs to be sufficiently flexible to adjust to changing circumstances. There is one point, however, on which it must be rigid: no surveillance of individuals without a search warrant.

The Fourth Amendment outlaws “unreasonable searches and seizures” and requires warrants to be specific. The framers were thinking of physical searches but they wrote with sufficient flexibility that their words can be applied to technologies of which they never dreamed.

That same flexibility should be used by the General Assembly in crafting a framework that presumably will give a governance board power to approve or deny requests for drone use by governmental agencies. That board also could consider penalties for violation of its rules.

The rules should be specific enough so applicants know what they can and cannot do, but flexible enough so the rules do not have to be rewritten every time there is a technological advance.

As technology advances, that will present its own set of problems for law-enforcement, specifically the transportation of contraband. But the technology has not yet reached that point.

The immediate task for North Carolina is to see that agencies can use drones without infringing on our liberties.




March 24

StarNews of Wilmington on state government imposing regulations on municipalities:

State lawmakers who have embraced deregulation nevertheless seem awfully fond of imposing new rules on local governments. If they’re not careful, the Honorables could undermine the ability of our cities and counties to function.

Most recently, the General Assembly has taken aim at privilege licenses, which cities and counties charge businesses that locate within their jurisdiction. Over the years the legislature has authorized privilege fees for various businesses, while leaving the regulation of other businesses to local governing boards. The result is a hodgepodge of fees that are charged according to what the business is.

State Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, is a member of a committee that will soon vote on a bill limiting privilege fees to no more than $100. In other words, the legislature would make decisions now being made at the local level.

While there is good argument to make the system more consistent, some things should be left to local government, where the voices of individual residents carry more weight than at the state level.

Business representatives have a fair point that there has to be a line between autonomy and the ability to jack up fees at will, but the legislature should not pre-empt the authority of cities and counties to set their own fees.

If they really want to make positive changes to how privilege fees are set and collected, lawmakers would invite city and county representatives, business leaders and ordinary residents to consider whether there is a better way - one that would reduce confusion for businesses, ensure fairness and maintain the power of residents and their local officials to make rules governing their community.



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