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Democrats sue to try to restore 2018 judicial primaries

December 13, 2017

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s Democrats have gone to court to try to prevent the enforcement of a Republican-approved state law that would eliminate primaries for judicial elections next spring.

The state Democratic Party and several county parties filed a lawsuit this week in Greensboro federal court seeking to have the law, which was approved in October, declared unconstitutional.

Democrats argue the elimination of primaries next year will create free-for-all races with ten or 20 candidates running for one seat and the winner receiving a minority of the votes cast by an electorate that will struggle to make informed decisions, creating obstacles for Democratic hopefuls.

“Legislative Republicans are rigging the system, not creating a better system of selecting judges,” state Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin said in a release Wednesday. “North Carolinians have a right to make an informed decision about who they want as their judicial nominee. This move unjustly eliminates that right and should be immediately struck down.”

Tuesday’s litigation, which also seeks action before candidate filing for nonjudicial races begin in mid-February, marks the latest legal front in North Carolina as Republicans reshape the state’s judiciary and Democrats seek to thwart them.

In the last 12 months, the legislature has passed laws reducing the number of Court of Appeals judges and reverting all judicial races — at both the trial and appellate level — to officially partisan affairs. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill containing the judicial primary cancellation, but the Legislature overrode him.

The GOP-controlled legislature also is now weighing whether to redraw election districts for local trial court judges and prosecutors and whether to propose a statewide referendum on changing how judges are selected from the current head-to-head elections.

The political conflict over reworking the judiciary continued later Wednesday when state Senate Democrats walked out of a committee debating the ideas after Republicans declined to hear from a retired judge that Cooper sent to speak on his behalf. The governor opposes giving power to the General Assembly to pick judges. The full General Assembly could vote on proposals in a special session starting Jan. 10.

The lawsuit against Republican legislative leaders alleges that canceling the 2018 primaries for trial and appellate court judgeships violates the fundamental rights of association in the U.S. Constitution for parties to select their standard bearers. Without the change, the candidate filing for about 150 judicial races for next November’s general election will begin in June.

GOP lawmakers have said the judicial primary cancellation would give them more time to study potential changes to judicial election districts and possible “merit selection” of judges. But party attorneys John Wallace and Eddie Speas wrote in the complaint that “no compelling or important regulatory interest justifies” the elimination.

Senate leader Phil Berger, one of the lawsuit’s defendants, said in a release that Cooper and the Democratic Party were the ones trying to manipulate partisan outcomes by going yet again to court because they are “unable to win control of the legislature at the ballot box or to sustain the governor’s veto of legislation that doesn’t serve their political goals.”

Several laws approved by Republicans have been challenged in federal and state court by Democrats or their allies since the GOP took control of the legislature in 2011, with mixed results.

Joseph Kyzer, a spokesman for House Speaker Tim Moore — another defendant — called the latest litigation a “new low” for Democrats when Republicans are conducting a thorough examination of judicial reforms that Democrats requested.

Cooper offered recently retired Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens to speak on his behalf Wednesday at the Senate judicial overhaul committee. The panel’s Republican co-chairmen had written to Cooper staffers on Tuesday, inviting “a representative from your office” to offer the governor’s perspective on proposals.

But Sen. Dan Bishop of Mecklenburg County, one of the co-chairmen, said in committee that members wouldn’t hear from Stephens because they had already heard from judicial representatives and had explicitly invited an “official from the executive branch to address us.”

Democratic committee members left after protesting Bishop’s decision. Stephens said afterward that there have been no scandals or controversy that would indicate “that we have a judiciary that’s not competent. So I’m beginning to wonder what the need for ‘merit selection’ is if we have a judiciary that is of high merit.”

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