- Associated Press - Thursday, May 28, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina lawmakers finally seem willing to change how voters can choose appellate court judges after legislation in previous years has gone nowhere.

The Senate gave tentative approval Thursday to a method giving most sitting state Supreme Court justices the option to be elected to additional eight-year terms in an up-or-down statewide vote, without a challenger. The measure needs one more affirmative Senate vote next week before returning to the House, which narrowly agreed last month to extend “retention elections” to sitting judges on the intermediate-level Court of Appeals as well.

Supporters of the retention election idea say it would help reduce the amount of money candidates and independent groups would spend in judicial races, and it could draw more public attention to the seats. There’s routinely been a drop-off of 25 to 30 percent between the number of votes cast in top-ticket races for president and governor and those for statewide judicial elections.

“There will be more interest and specifically more focus on a particular justice’s service and their record, as how they have performed in that seat … and a lot less ‘what color card did you pick up when you walked in the polls on election day,’” said Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, during the debate. The Senate’s initial vote was 35-13.

Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, a sponsor of the original bill, said he would ask his colleagues to accept the Senate changes, even though it would cover only the state’s highest court.

“That’s better than not having anything,” Daughtry said in an interview, adding that the bill is “a good first step in trying to get much of the politics out of the judiciary that we can.” Any final bill would go to Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk.

Most Democrats voted against the Senate measure. They unsuccessfully backed an amendment that would have delayed the start of the retention election by two years until the 2018 elections.

The current version, if enacted, would mean Associate Justice Bob Edmunds, the only incumbent up for re-election in 2016, would have to decide by July 1 whether to opt for the retention election. Although appellate elections are officially nonpartisan, Edmunds is one of four justices on the seven-member court who have Republican voter registration.

“I think we need time to actually explain this” change to voters, said Sen. Jane Smith, D-Robeson, the amendment sponsor. “This is too big a change to try to do quickly.”

Some lawyer groups have supported broader proposals in the past 25 years in which judges are appointed and confirmed by the legislature before retention elections. But they have failed to gained traction.

The North Carolina Bar Association supports whatever version of the bill has the best chance to receive final passage, a spokeswoman said.

“The Bar Association has supported some form of merit selection system for many, many years,” association lobbyist Kim Crouch said. About one-third of states hold retention elections of some kind for their highest court.

In both versions of the bill, the retention election option would apply to an appellate judge who first wins a conventional head-to-head election against an opponent. 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 within two years.


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