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Efforts To Change Judge Selection In NC Underway

Yesterday on Morning Edition, we reported on how people who are unhappy with their experiences in Mecklenburg County Family Court are now getting more active in trying to oust some of those judges. Today, WFAE's Julie Rose looks at one proposal that would change how judges are chosen in North Carolina. Quick. Name three Mecklenburg County District Court Judges. I'll give you another second. You're probably scratching your head, unless you're an attorney - or you've been to court yourself. Many of us will still be in the dark when we go to vote next month. About a third of people in Mecklenburg County who voted during the last two presidential elections didn't even bother to vote in judicial races. For some, that's a clear sign we need change. "Get rid of it," says Charlotte attorney John Wester. "Get rid of the election process that we have now." Wester is past president of the North Carolina Bar Association. During the next legislative session, the Bar Association will push a plan to start choosing judges for their qualifications, rather than their campaign skills. That would also help avoid the money problem: A good portion of judicial campaigns are funded by lawyers. When you walk into a courtroom do you or don't you care whether your lawyer contributed as much to the judge's campaign as your opponent's attorney? Of course you do, says Wester, and that perception undercuts the judicial system. Only 21 states choose judges by election. The rest have some sort of appointment system. The North Carolina Bar Association, which is separate from the State Bar, is proposing a hybrid that would work like this: Lawmakers would create a selection committee to choose the two most qualified candidates to run against each other. After that, the winner never has to face an election opponent again. But he or she would have to face the people in a retention election. That's when, after judges serve for awhile, their names go back on the ballot next to this question: "Should this judge continue to serve on the bench?" If the majority of voters say "Yes," the judge stays on until the next retention election. If voters say "No," the judge gets the boot and the selection process starts all over again. But some wonder if it's appropriate to limit the public's role at all. "Why would we take away the right to the public to elect people that affect their lives?" asks former Mecklenburg County Judge Bill Belk. "The judges affect your lives more than the legislature, the county commissioners." Belk rode into office by public vote, but was forced out by the state Judicial Standards Commission. His victory inspired other people who feel they've been mistreated by the family court system to get active in campaigns against sitting judges. Theoretically a judge should be able to make a ruling without worrying how it will affect his or her career. But just look at Iowa, says John Wester of the Bar Association. In that state, well-funded conservative groups are targeting three Supreme Court justices who upheld same-sex marriage. A judge in Iowa or any other state where judges are elected "cannot mistake that how you vote matters about whether you get reelected," says Wester. "Now, that's an independent judiciary? No it's not." Wester says the Bar Association's proposal would make judicial elections less political or subject to special interest groups. But there are many - including family court litigant Lisa Pennington - who see nothing wrong with holding judicial feet to the fire. "I don't understand why it is not okay to question the record of individuals holding political offices," says Pennington, who sees plenty of room for improvement in the judiciary. But others point out that just a handful of North Carolina judges have ever been removed from the bench for misconduct. And that may be the biggest barrier to major reform of the judicial selection process. "I do not hear any argument that North Carolina has a system of ignorant, corrupt judges," said Charlotte attorney James Ferguson speaking on WFAE's Charlotte Talks earlier this year. "Through an elective system, we have come up with high quality judges at every level of our judiciary and I would put that system up against any system where they have an appointed system. So I think if you're going to make a fundamental constitutional change, there ought to be some reason for that." The North Carolina Bar Association agrees the bench is full of fair and capable judges. If the system were broken, it would probably be easier to get support for a radical change. Still, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Fletcher Hartsell says the judge selection process is on lawmakers' minds. They're open to change. And many agree the system we have now, could be better.