Proposed State Constitutional Amendment Would Change Who Fills Vacant Judge Seats

Jun 27, 2018

The House has given preliminary approval to a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would change the process for filling vacant judicial seats.

The bill would create a non-partisan board that vets nominees. Then the General Assembly would select two nominees for each vacancy for the governor to choose between.  The governor currently chooses judges for vacant seats without input from lawmakers. House Republicans argued the measure would give the three branches of government more balance in the process.

"This bill brings together the other two of the branches to fill a vacancy in the third branch. Right now it's just the province of the one, the governor," said Representative Jonathan Jordan (R-Ashe). "Appointments by the governor are great, but when they affect local areas, they're not often very responsive."

Jordan argued that the change would give average citizens more voice in the process. Currently, the North Carolina Bar Association nominates judges to fill vacancies. Jordan, an attorney, said that shuts out input from people of other professions who might otherwise speak to their representatives if the General Assembly had a role in the nominations.

"Those [Bar Association] meetings are attended by attorneys," Jordan said. "There have been several vacancies in my career in my area - I have never seen an outside person come and address the Bar."

Democrats argued that a governor is more accountable to voters statewide than legislators would be -- particularly if leaders in the House or Senate took a strong role in the nominating process.

"Whoever the Speaker of the House is, or whoever the President Pro Tem is, would not need to be responsive to a district that is not his or her own district, in the same way that a governor would be," said Representative Robert Rieves (D-Lee).

Representative Marcia Morey (D-Durham), a long-time district court judge, also called into question whether the legislature was prepared to take on the extra duty to debate and select nominees.

"How many vacancies do we have each year? Dozens. And this part-time legislature wants to take on that responsibility?" Morey questioned, adding that judicial seats could remain vacant longer while lawmakers decide.

If the House gives final approval to the measure, voters will decide in the fall elections if they want to amend the state constitution.