RALEIGH — The Republican-controlled General Assembly gave final approval Wednesday to legislation officially making all local trial court elections in North Carolina partisan affairs again, a decision that appears ripe for Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to issue his first veto.
With the House agreeing to slight Senate changes, the measure for District Court and Superior Court races attempts to complete the GOP’s rapid shift away from nonpartisan elections for judicial seats, which initially started in the mid-1990s with help from Cooper and other Democrats.
While a state senator, Cooper championed legislation to hold Superior Court elections without partisan labels attached to candidates.
The idea later expanded to District Court, the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. But just before Cooper was sworn in as governor, the legislature approved a law returning the appellate court races to partisan elections in 2018.
“I have real concerns about throwing judicial elections back to the partisan arena,” Cooper said Tuesday. “I think it’s important that they stay out of that as much as possible. I don’t like it.”
But the bill cleared both the House and Senate in final votes by veto-proof margins, meaning the chance a veto would be overridden is high. Wednesday’s 74-43 vote was largely along party lines.
In nonpartisan judicial elections, primaries are held when there are at least three candidates. The top two vote-getters advance to the General Election. Their partisan affiliations by voter registration aren’t listed on the ballot. The bill would require party primaries. Unaffiliated candidates could still run if they collected enough voter signatures.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, Democrats and some Republicans backed nonpartisan races as a way to distance the judicial branch from partisanship and the campaign money associated with it.
But Republicans argue that partisanship never left judicial races and the lack of information about a candidate’s political affiliation on ballots meant the public knew very little about candidates. Judicial races generally receive fewer votes than more high-profile races.
The bill “restores a commonsense and straightforward partisan election system that lets voters know who shares their views on the proper role of the judiciary,” Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said when the bill cleared his chamber earlier in the week.
The December law making appellate court races partisan came weeks after the election victory by Mike Morgan to the state Supreme Court meant a majority of justices were registered Democrats for the first time since 1998.
The House’s final vote was one of several actions Wednesday by Republicans to either tinker with the judiciary or erode Cooper’s authority in molding that branch.
In close votes, a House judiciary committee recommended three bills. Two shifted the power to fill vacancies for District Court and special Superior Court judgeships from the governor to the legislature. A third would reduce through retirements and other attrition the number of judges on the Court of Appeals from 15 to 12.
Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-Surry and a sponsor of the Court of Appeals bill, cited data showing the court’s caseload has fallen 20 percent in five years. The measure also would move some complex cases to the Supreme Court, which Stevens also said should help the Court of Appeals.
But Martha Geer, who served on the Court of Appeals for 13 years until last May, challenged the data and told the committee the court still has a heavy workload. Geer said the court, which meets in three-judge panels, could see delays in opinions quickly if the bill soon became law because its next age-mandated retirement occurs in a few months.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin had not taken a position on the Court of Appeals bill as of Wednesday, according to an email Martin sent to Court of Appeals judges.