Partisan budget proposal is a five-alarm fire for North Carolina’s courts

June 1, 2023 12:00 pm
sign reading "State of North Carolina Justice Building"

NC Supreme Court (Photo: Clayton Henkel)

Our democracy here in North Carolina is a project 234 years in the making. The drafters of our state constitution were the architects who laid down the foundations and we, the voters, took it from there. It’s been an imperfect process, to be sure, but over time we managed to build a stronger, more inclusive home for North Carolinians from all walks of life. Through it all, a key to our progress has been ensuring a clear separation of powers between politics and our courts as well as a system of strong checks and balances for anything too extreme or unconstitutional. 

Unfortunately, the same system that’s served us so well since our founding has been on the edge of demolition for years now thanks to sustained attacks by extremist politicians against our state courts. In its new budget proposal, the same extremists in the North Carolina Senate are looking to one-up themselves with an even more baldfaced power grab. And this time around, it’s a two-parter.

In Step One, politicians in the state Senate want to take for themselves the power to appoint 10 new special Superior Court judges. These special judges have all the authority of those on regular Superior Courts, often hearing major criminal and civil cases, but without having to run for election. This change would allow them to place their own shortlist of handpicked candidates – all this without any voter buy-in or input from the governor. That’s a power grab, plain and simple, but it doesn’t stop there. 

Now comes the sneaky part, the part that these same politicians are banking on no one noticing or caring much about. The way it works now, anyone looking to challenge an unconstitutional government law, like a gerrymandered electoral map or new abortion restrictions, must go before a three-judge panel before moving up the decision-making chain (next comes the Court of Appeals and then the North Carolina Supreme Court). 

I know what you’re thinking – that’s a lot of power for just three trial court judges! – and you’re right. It’s the reason why we have safeguards in place to make sure these panels are reasonably balanced and fair. For starters, membership on the panels is limited to resident superior court judges, the ones actually elected by North Carolinians, who must come from different parts of the state. And just to add an extra layer of protection, when it comes to important redistricting cases, these panels are overseen by a senior superior court judge, also elected by voters, to ensure panel judgments are in line with our state constitution. 

Well, under Step Two of the proposal advanced by the extremist state Senate, all those safeguards will be thrown out the window: no more membership requirements for the panel and no more oversight from any senior judge or voters. The sole power to appoint judges would rest with North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby, who has demonstrated time and again during his short tenure that he’s all too happy to serve as a rubber stamp for the unconstitutional agenda of partisan politics that holds sway in Raleigh. That means that politicians, working with Newby, would have the power to pack the very judicial bodies tasked with striking down any unconstitutional laws passed by the legislature. It would be the epitome of the proverbial fox guarding the hen house. 

In April, Newby and his fellow conservative justices overturned two rulings their court issued just last year – something it’s done only four times before in the state’s entire history – effectively reinstating unconstitutional, anti-voter restrictions that discriminated against millions of Black North Carolinians while also restoring partisan-manipulated electoral maps which would have silenced the voices of thousands of voters across the state. Assisting politicians with this new attempt at a judicial takeover is just the latest transgression by the partisan chief justice. 

This isn’t as bad as it looks; it’s actually far, far worse.

Our judges are supposed to be the firefighters who protect our democracy from the flames of partisanship and extremism; they’re supposed to defend our rights and freedoms, not tear them up. None of our rights and freedoms can be considered safe if Newby and his pals in Raleigh aren’t stopped. Voting rights, civil rights, education, and workers’ protections will all be on the chopping block. Without any real checks and balances within our state, there’s no limit to the damage that could be done. 

This is an attack against the very foundations of our democracy – the same democracy we spent more than two centuries constructing, brick by brick. And we’re not talking about termites or water damage here. It’s more like pouring out gasoline and tossing a lit match over the shoulder on the way out. This is a five-alarm fire being lit under our state democracy. 

We must unite as a state against this threat. North Carolinians are more powerful than the people in power when we stand together. We don’t want partisan judges and reckless politicians. We want a healthy democracy for our families and for future generations – one in which every person’s vote is counted and every voice heard. After all, we built this democracy. It’s ours. And we’re not going to let a handful of extremists take it from us.

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