Gov. Roy Cooper

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Editor’s note: The legislature overruled Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of its judicial primary elimination on Oct. 17, 2017, two weeks after this article was originally published.

RALEIGH — An elections bill passed in one of several legislative actions in last week’s brief session, has drawn the 13th veto from Gov. Roy Cooper, who objected to a provision eliminating next year’s judicial primaries.

“This legislation abolishes a scheduled election and takes away the right of the people to vote for the judges of their choice,” Cooper said in a statement released with Monday’s veto.

“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. 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.”

During floor debate on the bill Sen. Ralph Hise, R-McDowell, said the legislature intends to move forward with reforming the system, including the possibility of moving to judges being selected by a commission rather than elected. He said the current system confuses voters and offer little information about candidates.

Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, talks with reporters during an earlier news event. Kirk Ross/Carolina Public Press

After the veto announcement, Hise derided Cooper’s rationale for shooting down the bill and called on legislators to override. “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 in a statement. “I hope my colleagues will override his veto.”

Opponents of the bill said it would cause chaos.

“From a practical standpoint, ending judicial primaries will lead to chaotic ballots with a laundry list of judicial candidates that will be difficult for voters to navigate,” said Mellissa Kromm, executive director of North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections, in a statement after the bill was announced.

“Voters deserve more choices and more say in their democracy, and a legislature that is already illegitimately gerrymandered should have no standing to further weaken the voice of voters.”

The legislation also changes the timeline for the filing period for the judicial races moving it from February to June and raises the bar for a runoff, giving candidates the seat if they win at least 30 percent of the vote, down the current 40 percent.

Other sections of the bill reduces the state’s requirements for third party candidates to be added to ballots.

Odds of a veto override of the bill are somewhat closer than most of Cooper’s vetoes, since Republicans were not entirely united on it. The legislation passed the House by one more vote than would be needed for an override.

Judicial redistricting not done

The elections legislation and a proposal to redraw judicial districts were linked at the beginning of last week’s session, but only the House held a redistricting vote, passing it Thursday night,  after the Senate opted not to take up the plan.

Following another round of committee hearings at which jurists and bar representatives urged legislators to take their time in drafting new districts, the House voted to adopt the Republican-backed plan along a party line vote of 69-43.

The vote, conducted in the closing hours of the brief session after the Senate had closed up shop, underlined arguments against rushing the bill to a vote.

Democrats objected to the way counties were spit in the process, saying that happened mostly to counties with large numbers of Democratic voters.

During final debate on the bill House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, pointed to Gaston and Buncombe counties, which have closed to the same population and the same number of judges.

“Why does Buncombe County get divided and Gaston County doesn’t?” he asked. “Obviously the answer is partisan politics.”

Jackson said proponents of the bill brought up important points about the need to redistrict some areas, but if the current bill passed it would likely lead to same kind of litigation as the General Assembly’s other redistricting efforts.

Bill sponsor Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, said the delay in changing the lines has already gone on too long.

“The only option they offer at this point is to keep the status quo and that’s not acceptable to me,” he said. “This is a step in the right direction as we work to invest more in our judicial districts and clean up the lines and make sure the voters of this state are not disenfranchised.”

The legislature, which has reassembled in Raleigh twice since adjourning its regular session in July, also passed a lengthy technical corrections and budget-readjustment bill worked out by House and Senate negotiators in a conference committee.

The bill fixes a gap in the principal salary schedules that would have caused some school administrators to make less this year. The bill did not, however, address the ongoing concern over the impact of class-size mandates that the legislature plans for next year.

In a release from the governor’s office critical of the session, spokesperson Ford Porter said the lack of action on class size is causing budget and scheduling difficulties around the state. He also pointed to lack of action on Cooper appointments to the State Board of Education, Utilities Commission and Teachers and State Retirees Board of Trustees.

Despite those objections, the governor signed the technical corrections and budget-readjustment bill Monday.

The legislature also took action last week on prior vetoes by the governor, overriding vetoes of two major regulatory and environmental bills.

The adjournment resolution adopted by both chambers sets the opening date for the next session as January 10, but with another hearing in a key redistricting case scheduled for this week and ongoing legal battles with the governor also in progress, the legislature could be called back to Raleigh again this year.

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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