Partisan judicial elections bill to test Coopers veto power

A bill to restore partisan district court elections is sent to the governor amid Democratic opposition, while bills expanding legislative authority over the judiciary pass the House

Madeline Gray | North State Journal
A lone police officer stands in the atrium outside of the Senate chambers at the North Carolina General Assembly on Feb. 23.

RALEIGH — The North Carolina General Assembly assumed a routine quality this week as lawmakers bounced between committee meetings and floor votes, but was highlighted by passage of a bill to restore party labels to certain judicial elections. The bill, H.B. 100, was one of three bills related to the judiciary that sparked partisan floor debates, but the only one as yet to pass both legislative chambers and be sent to Gov. Roy Cooper.Having already returned party labels to N.C. Supreme Court elections, H.B. 100 would extend the practice to district and superior courts. Nearly universally opposed among by the minority party, Democrats have urged Cooper to veto the bill. At time of print, the bill is still pending on the governor’s desk, but should Cooper reject the bill it will mark his first use of veto power since taking office.Alas, the bill was passed by supermajorities in both the House and Senate meaning the legislature can override a gubernatorial veto if the votes hold.The other judiciary bills, House Bill 239 and House Bill 240, reduce the number of seats on the N.C. Court of Appeals from 15 to 12 and transfer the authority to fill judicial vacancies from the governor to the General Assembly respectively.”Judicial branch reports have shown that over the last 10 or so years the overall case load of the court of appeals has steadily decreased,” said primary sponsor of H.B. 239 Rep. Justin Burr (R-Stanly). “It’s clear that their filings, their dispositions are at similar levels to before the court was expanded in 2000 which increased the court purely, in my opinion, for political reasons.”The bill stipulates the reduction would be achieved through attrition as judges who reach retirement age would not be replaced. Three court of appeals judges, all Republicans, will reach retirement age in the next year or so, taking the court down to 12 seats. Being that under current law the governor names replacements to fulfill the remainder of the term, the move is seen by Democrats as an attempt to limit Cooper’s influence in the judiciary.”By eliminating these seats it does not give the governor the opportunity to replace these seats,” said Rep. Mickey Michaux (D-Durham). “It is exceedingly political. I don’t see why you want to mess with something that isn’t broken.”Burr countered the allegation, saying the bill is merely good policy that reflects the decreasing workload of the appeals court.”One option that we have is that quite frankly the only reason those seats will become open is because of the retirement age on judges, which could easily be changed to allow these Republicans to serve on for the remainder of their term,” suggested Burr. “That would be the political thing to do, but we’re not making a political decision here. We’re making a good policy decision based on the case load and the ability of the court to handle the cases going forward.”H.B. 240 would give the General Assembly the power to make district court vacancy appointments which under current law are filled by the governor. Burr is a primary sponsor of this bill, saying that the district court appointments are better made by lawmakers because they can source and vet candidates as representatives of the relevant districts in which they will serve.Even though vacancy appointments are short in duration, only serving until the next election, Democrats in the House argued that bucked precedent and pointed to the delegation of such vacancy appointment powers to the governor in the N.C. Constitution.”Nine times we’ve tweaked the appointment process and nine times we’ve left the governor with the ability to make these appointments,” said Rep. Robert Reives (D-Sanford). Reives added that due to the nature of partisan squabbling in the legislature, the process outlined in the bill risks leaving important posts vacant for too long.Both H.B. 239 and H.B 240 passed the lower chamber with strong majorities, yet mostly along partisan lines. The bills now head to the N.C. Senate for consideration.Elsewhere, the lawmakers continued with informational appropriations meetings as they prepare to form a two-year budget, officially filing a skeletal budget bill in the Senate, the Appropriations Act of 2017. When lawmakers return next week they will consider constitutionally capping the personal income tax rate at 5.5 percent or a bill to regulate fantasy sports operators. Of special note, legislative leadership anticipates the filing of an omnibus energy reform bill mid-week that will make significant changes to Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards that may mark the most significant legislation beyond the budget to be debated this session.