Let’s start with the easy part for us as voters. In North Carolina, appellate judges are selected by popular election in a non-partisan (no Democrats or Republicans) statewide campaign. Typically, they are listed on the ballot separately from other political candidates.
Now, there are many ways to choose judges, and many opinions about the best way to choose judges. Some states mirror the United States by having the chief executive appoint members of the highest courts. Some states have “blue ribbon panels” that conduct a screening process, and then submit a short list of nominees to the governor. Some put a limitation on the governor’s power by requiring ultimate approval of the legislature. The ways are manifold. Each is fraught with risk to our system of justice.
In 2016 in North Carolina, there will be one seat on the NC Supreme Court that is on the ballot. Republican incumbent Bob Edmunds is running for re-election, and Wake County Superior Court Judge Mike Morgan is challenging him. Both are good people, and both have extensive judicial experience. Although the races are ostensibly non-partisan, there is little doubt that the state party machinery will get heavily involved. Some folks think that is a good thing; some, not good at all.
After all, what do we want from our judges? Frequently, if we listen to the national media, we want judges who are in our political party, who agree with us politically, who have a track record of votes on hot button issues, and so on. If we listen to the national news on the evening of a split decision by the US Supreme Court in a controversial case, it will sound more like a football game with one side winning and the other losing.
However, before we cast our vote in the 2016 election, I urge us to give careful thought to the qualities we want in our top judges. Should they be political hacks? Should they be “correct” on pressing political issues? Should they be close personal or political friends of the governor? In short, do we want justice or do we want our way?
To me, the better qualified judge is one who has had a breadth of personal and legal experience. It is someone who is judicious and restrained. It is someone who has considerable intellect, and an expansive background of experiences. It is someone with proper experience and temperament to administer justice under the law.
We should not allow tacky ads or outside interests to influence our decision on the best candidate. Perhaps we look for someone without a political agenda and for someone who has a genuine, humble respect for their role. Compassionate enough to understand our flaws as humans, yet dispassionate enough to apply the law without editorial.
For my two cents’ worth, I would take politics completely out of the picture, and try very hard to select the best possible woman or man for the job who, like the major league umpire, would “call them right down the middle.” For now, I urge you to go online to learn about the background of the candidates, and see which judicial candidates, by word and deed, promise hard work, intellectual curiosity, integrity, and fairness.