RALEIGH — North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has vetoed a measure to make elections for local trial judges officially partisan races again.
“North Carolina wants its judges to be fair and impartial, and partisan politics has no place on the judges’ bench. We need less politics, not more,” Cooper wrote Thursday in his veto message , his first since taking office.
The GOP-controlled legislature is seeking to weaken the power of the recently elected Democrat, this time by targeting his ability to shape the state’s trial courts. Other bills that have passed the House and await Senate consideration would remove his authority to appoint replacement judges.
If the Republicans override his wishes, it would mark a personal defeat for Cooper, who as a state senator in 1996 championed the legislation that made elections for most trial judges officially nonpartisan — without party primaries and without party labels next to candidates’ names.
“Judges make tough decisions on child abuse, divorce, property disputes, drunk driving, domestic violence and other issues that should be free from politics. This bill reverses that progress,” Cooper wrote.
Cooper said voters should elect judges based on their experience and ability, not their party. The measure also would make it more difficult for unaffiliated judges to remain on the ballot, he said.
The chief sponsor of these judicial bills said legislators are better equipped than the governor to choose replacements for the courts.
“The General Assembly should be more involved in making these decisions than one man sitting over there behind a closed door (and) that the public doesn’t know why, who or what,” said Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly.
While Republicans hold veto-proof majorities in both chambers, it’s uncertain whether they have the House votes needed to override Cooper on judicial elections, since several Republicans voted against the idea of partisan elections for Superior Court and District Court in a preliminary vote last month.
“It’s just raw politics,” said Rep. Mickey Michaux of Durham, who opposes these bills, as do nearly all his fellow Democrats.
Burr denies that, saying he pushed for these changes when GOP Gov. Pat McCrory was in office.
Republicans were stung in November when Democrats regained a majority on the state Supreme Court for the first time since 1998. Despite the officially nonpartisan nature of the Supreme Court at the time, the party registration of each justice is closely watched.
The legislature’s GOP leaders quickly took action in December — two weeks before Cooper took office — by passing a law making elections for the Supreme Court and the intermediate Court of Appeals officially partisan again starting in 2018. They had become nonpartisan in the early 2000s.
On balance, these measures would help Republicans retain a conservative bent in state courts, since the GOP-led legislature would likely to appoint registered Republicans as judges, giving them the advantage of incumbency when they come up for election.
Republicans also removed other gubernatorial powers in December, which McCrory signed on his way out. Cooper is challenging those laws in court.
Political labels were removed from candidates on ballots and partisan primaries eliminated for those races beginning in the late 1990s. Supporters of nonpartisan judicial elections say they help shield judicial candidates from big-money politics and discourage political ideology from creeping into campaigns and decision-making on the bench.
“We want him to veto that bill,” the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP and a vocal critic of Republican legislators, said at a Legislative Building news conference Wednesday. “The judiciary should not be partisan.”
Republicans say that without political labels on the ballot, voters have little information when deciding whom they should choose for judicial seats, and many simply leave those races blank. Burr said Democrats passed laws to “hide” the partisan affiliation of candidates after GOP candidates increasingly won judicial seats in the 1980s and 1990s following decades of Democratic dominance.
“Surely, Gov. Cooper does not wish to suppress voter turnout in our judicial races,” Amy Auth, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said in a release after the veto.
The bills now in the Senate would give the legislature the power to fill District Court vacancies and those when Special Superior Court judges step down, and reduce the Court of Appeals from 15 to 12 judges through attrition, such as retirement or resignation. That change would deny Cooper an opportunity to appoint Democrats to fill the next three potential vacancies — all currently held by Republicans.