North Carolina’s justice system faces a major crossroads in this fall’s election. With a one-vote Democratic majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court, and two seats (both Democratic) up for election, partisan control of the state’s highest court will be decided. Control of the state supreme court has enormous implications. Probably the most immediate is the near-term future of partisan gerrymandering, which all the current Republican justices voted to endorse just earlier this year, and both Republican candidates for the state supreme court also support.
Many voters hear about judicial elections and ask: but why are judges elected on a partisan basis at all? In the August edition of the Carolina Forward Poll, North Carolina voters were asked for their view of how judges should be chosen in our state. Their response was mixed, but unequivocal on at least one point: voters do not support partisan elections for judges. Nearly half of voters say outright that they’d prefer non-partisan judicial elections, while only about a quarter overall – and less than half of every group measured – say they want partisan ones:
North Carolina switched to non-partisan elections for superior courts in 1998, did the same for district and appellate courts in 2002, and finally made supreme court races nonpartisan in 2004. More than a decade later, the new Republican leadership reversed course and made supreme court judicial elections partisan once more starting in 2016. They followed suit in 2018 by making district, superior and appellate court races partisan as well. (The same Republican leaders also converted many school board elections to be partisan too.)
This poll suggests these measures are deeply unpopular. Not only are voters uncomfortable involving partisan politics in their choice of judges, but North Carolina has lately witnessed many tawdry consequences of these worlds crossing lines, as the pitched partisan battles of the legislature have increasingly spread uninterrupted into the state's courtrooms. Judges (at all levels) have been pushed into loud, partisan campaigning like candidates for the other two branches of government, severely compromising their appearances of impartiality and fairness and, consequently, the public's trust in the judiciary.
But it's hard to blame candidates themselves for adapting to an electoral system that state lawmakers have forced them into. Making judicial races non-partisan once more - and, even better, returning public financing to those races, removing the influence of special interests - could be a powerful influence to restoring public confidence in the state's justice system.