Veto override means no scheduled judicial primaries in 2018

Published 5:09 pm Tuesday, October 17, 2017

RALEIGH — Primary elections for trial court and appeals court seats in 2018 have been scrapped after Republicans on Tuesday overrode Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a bill that foretells potentially more judicial changes ahead.

The House voted to make state law a measure — approved two weeks ago then formally objected to by Cooper — that also would delay candidate filing for those judicial races from February to June. The Senate voted Monday night for the override. At least 60 percent of the legislators present in each chamber had to agree to overcome Cooper’s veto.

The override marks the latest action by the GOP-controlled General Assembly to retool the judicial branch. Earlier this year, lawmakers passed bills making District Court and Superior Court races officially partisan elections again and reducing through attrition the number of Court of Appeals judges from 15 to 12. Cooper vetoed both of those bills, but they were also overturned.

The cancellation of judicial primaries next May and postponement of filing was inserted into a broader elections bill containing ideas that previously have received broad bipartisan support. Those provisions permanently make it easier for third-party and unaffiliated candidates to get on North Carolina ballots. They also lower the threshold that a leading candidate would need to meet in order to avoid a primary runoff from more than 40 percent of the votes cast to 30 percent. But the final and override votes broke largely along party lines with the late addition of the judicial changes.

Republicans controlling both chambers say the primary cancellation and filing delay will give them more time to consider redrawing judicial election boundaries for trial court seats statewide, and possibly fashion a constitutional amendment changing how judges are selected.

The House earlier this month approved a separate bill remapping the local judicial election districts. This redistricting hasn’t been debated by the Senate, but House members suggest it could if linked to a “merit selection” proposal the Senate may favor. The legislature is scheduled now to reconvene Jan. 10, less than five weeks before candidate filing would have opened.

“There are very likely going to be changes to the districts that judges run in,” said Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican shepherding the override effort in the House. “Delaying the filing for judges is the most prudent way to” avoid confusion, he added.

Following in line with his veto message last week, Cooper wrote Tuesday after the override that Republicans are abolishing a scheduled election and taking away voting rights again because “the legislature is angry that their bad laws continue to be overturned by the courts.” The legislation, Cooper added, is the first step to “rig the system,” a charge Republicans dismiss.

During debate, House Democrats said canceling the judicial primary and delaying judicial candidate filing was premature and would lead to chaos in judicial elections in November 2018 because there would be no limit to the number of people who could run for a seat. They recalled a pair of free-for-all judicial races this decade in which more than a dozen ran in each.

“This bill makes a mockery of the selection process for members of the judicial branch,” said Rep. Joe John, a Wake County Democrat and former Court of Appeals judge. “How many voters will skip all judicial elections when they see a multiplicity of unfamiliar names?”

The delay would also apply to elections for three Court of Appeals seats and one Supreme Court seat, even though those are statewide races and aren’t subject to redistricting. Associate Justice Barbara Jackson, a Republican, is seeking re-election next year on a Supreme Court in which Democrats currently hold four of the seven seats.

Leaders of the Libertarian Party, Green Party and Constitution Party in North Carolina praised the lower ballot-access thresholds. The Libertarian Party had been previously able to meet the signature requirements to field slates of candidates.