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Judges come out against two proposed NC amendments

September 28, 2018

Some local judges have joined the fight against two proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot in November.

Lawmakers have put six amendments before voters this fall, but two have generated intense opposition. They would take the power to name members of the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement and to fill judicial vacancies from the governor and give those powers to the legislature.

All five living former governors, both Republican and Democrat, and all six living former chief justices of the state Supreme Court have said those two proposals would undercut the judiciary and erode the separation of powers between the branches of government.

Retired Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens, who served on the Wake County bench for 33 years, said Thursday that lawmakers are tired of having their laws ruled unconstitutional, so they want to resort to “good ol’ boy politics” and put themselves in charge of deciding who sits on the bench.

“This proposal would let the legislature handpick their own political supporters to fill judicial vacancies, people who will be more inclined to let them pass any law they choose,” Stephens said during a news conference. “This plan is a dramatic change to our constitution.”

Retired Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks, who served on the Cumberland County bench for 24 years, said lawmakers have tried previously to take control of state courts, including redrawing judicial voting districts.

Regarding the elections board amendment, Stephens said lawmakers want political control over who is and is not investigated for campaign finance and ethics violations.

“That’s like foxes appointing foxes to investigate who ate the chickens,” he said.

Stephens also appears in television ads being run against the proposals by a group called Stop Deceptive Amendments. The group has purchased $2 million in TV ads.

Legislative leaders are calling the opposition campaign “misguided.”

“Former Gov. Bev Perdue appointed members of her own staff to the bench on her last day in office. I think most people would agree that is not how this process should work,” said Pat Ryan, spokesman for Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. “As far as the other amendment, having a truly bipartisan ethics and elections board so there’s no question of impartiality sure seems like a pretty good idea.”

But Stephens argued that giving the power to appoint judges to lawmakers would lead to less accountability, not more.

“The governor was elected by the majority of the voters of North Carolina,” Stephens said. “The Speaker of the House was elected by the members of 18 precincts out of 2,704 precincts. The (Senate) President Pro Tem was elected in two counties - Rockingham County and part of Guilford County.”

“They both received less than one percent of the vote of the registered voters in North Carolina,” Stephens said. “They don’t answer to anybody. The governor answers to the people of North Carolina.”

Stephens added that the amendment would allow judges appointed by legislative leaders to serve up to four years without standing for elections, while judges appointed by the governor must currently go before the voters at the next election. “The people get to decide whether the governor made a good choice.”

The State Board of Ethics and Elections is currently bipartisan, made up of four Republicans, four Democrats and one Independent. The amendment would take the power to appoint the board away from the governor and give it to state lawmakers, and it would cut the number of board members from nine to eight, removing the independent.

Weeks said an even-numbered board would lead to partisan deadlock, generating electoral litigation that could cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Lawmakers had to rewrite both proposals recently after a state court ruled that earlier versions were misleading to voters.

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