- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 21, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Lawmakers in the North Carolina House narrowly agreed Tuesday to give North Carolina appellate court judges a new way to keep their jobs through something called retention elections - when only their name is on the ballot.

The House voted 61-56 in favor of the option offered to a member of the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals who previously won a conventional election against an opponent.

The incumbent would be able to stand for an up-or-down election after serving a full eight-year term. If a majority of voters support it, the judge gets another term, said Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg, one of the bill’s sponsors. The judge 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 in two years.

Over the past few decades, North Carolina attorneys’ groups have supported alternative methods to elect trial and appellate court judges, either through a more formal appointment process and retention elections. No changes to the governor’s appointment powers for judicial vacancies are in the new bill.

“We do not think it goes far enough in adopting a true merit selection system for the state of North Carolina,” Kim Crouch, a lobbyist for the North Carolina Bar Association, which supports the measure, said in an email. “However, we believe it is a good first step in the right direction.”

Another GOP backer of the measure also said this week it seeks to address concerns that millions of dollars are being spent on some statewide judicial elections. Judicial election reform advocates are worried the cash influx leaves the impression that judges’ decisions can be influenced by donors.

The bill, which now goes to the Senate, passed even though Republicans spoke out strongly against the measure. Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Wake, called the retention option a “convoluted method” to fix a perceived problem with how judges are currently elected.

Taking “power away from the voters to make that decision” is not the way to go, Avila said. “I can’t help but see more problems.”

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