Legislators are filtering back into Raleigh Monday to address Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a bill that would cancel primaries for the 2018 judicial elections.
Republican leaders are asking lawmakers to return to the capital to take up an override vote on SB656, the Electoral Freedom Act of 2017, after Cooper vetoed the legislation.
The Electoral Freedom Act of 2017 passed the House in a 70 to 44 party line vote and the Senate approved the legislation in a 30 to 16 vote, meaning that both chambers approved the measure with veto-proof majorities making it likely the legislation will see a veto override vote.
While legislators taking up the veto override vote is not unexpected, many expected the vote to come in the planned January session, not this month.
In his veto message Cooper said that the legislation was the first step toward passing a constitutional amendment moving to an appointment-based system of choosing judges.
Cooper said, “This legislation abolishes a scheduled election and takes away the right of the people to vote for the judges of their choice. It is the first step toward a constitutional amendment that will rig the system so that the legislature picks everybody’s judges in every district instead of letting the people vote for the judges they want.”
Cooper went so far as to suggest that leadership at the legislature wants to control judicial appointments due to judicial decisions regarding the constitutionality of laws passed by Republicans in recent years saying, “If the legislature doesn’t like the fact that judges are ruling many of their laws unconstitutional, they should change their ways instead of their judges.”
When passing the bill legislators said that cancelling the judicial primaries would give candidates time to digest the proposed new judicial districts, though the Senate did not take up the redistricting plan which passed the House during the special session last week.
The bill also would have extended to June the period in which judicial candidates would have to formally sign up to run in those elections.
Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Madison) said that the delayed filing period is needed for legislators to have time to consider how judges are selected in the state, raising the question of whether judges will be appointed rather than elected in the state.
How judges are selected varies by state; in Virginia all judges are appointed by the legislature, whereas in South Carolina all but county judges are selected by the legislature. County judges in South Carolina are selected through partisan elections.
Many states maintain systems where some of their judges are appointed and others are elected, trending toward local judges being elected and those in larger and statewide jurisdictions being appointed.
In North Carolina all judges are currently elected.
The bill also eased ballot access thresholds for third parties and unaffiliated candidates, as well as lowering the requirement for primary candidates to win a party nomination from 40 to 30 percent, likely reducing the possibility for run-off elections.
Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), chair of the Senate elections committee, responded to Cooper’s veto saying, “Gov. Cooper’s veto is disappointing, though perhaps it’s unsurprising that the plurality winner of the closest gubernatorial election in North Carolina history is afraid for voters to have more choices at the ballot box,” referring to changes in the bill to make it easier for third party candidates to get on the ballot.
“This legislation makes needed, non-partisan reforms to our ballot access laws and gives judicial candidates the time they need to analyze any forthcoming changes to judicial maps that the General Assembly may make. I urge my General Assembly colleagues to override this misguided veto,” Lewis said.
Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Madison) criticized Cooper for vetoing the legislation based on an idea that was not included in the bill.
“The rumors Gov. Cooper cited to justify his veto aren’t in this bill, which simply gives lawmakers time to conduct the thorough and deliberate study of North Carolina’s judicial elections that groups across the political spectrum – including members of our judiciary — have repeatedly called for,” Hise said. “I hope my colleagues will override his veto.”