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Shorter judge terms opposed

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Tony Hornthal

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Monday, October 23, 2017

Two local attorneys say a proposed constitutional amendment to reduce the terms for judges to two years is a bad idea because it would affect justice by reducing the time judges spend in the courtroom deciding cases.

Both Tony Hornthal and Danny Donahue, whose law practices are based in Elizabeth City, said they oppose the proposed legislation introduced by two top legislators last week.

The bill filed by state Senate Rules Committee Chairman Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, and state House Rules Chairman David Lewis, R-Harnett, would ask voters in the 2018 primary election to amend the state constitution to allow more frequent elections of judges.

According to the proposal, District Court judges would be required to run for election every two years, instead of every four years as they do now. Superior Court judges, Court of Appeals judges and Supreme Court justices would also have to run every two years, instead of every eight years as they do now.

The bill would also allow the governor to fill vacancies on the Superior Court, Court of Appeals and Supreme Court through appointments — without legislative confirmation — for the remainder of the governor’s current term.

The proposal would affect both Superior Court judges in the seven-county 1st Judicial District: Jerry Tillett and J.C. Cole. Tillett is the senior resident Superior Court judge in the district.

Also affected are the district’s five District Court judges: Edgar Barnes, Robert Trivette, Amber Davis-Malarney, Eula Reid and Meader Harriss III. Barnes is the chief District Court judge in the district.

None of the seven judges affected by the proposed legislation responded to attempts to obtain comment last week.

But longtime attorney Tony Hornthal, a longtime student of the state’s legal system, stated his opposition to the bill when reached last week, calling it "unprecedented."

Hornthal said he believes limiting the terms of judges would likely affect both the quality of the state's judges as well as the justice they administer.

"If a judge has to spend time away from court, from his duties in court, running for office every two years, then for practical purposes, a judge is going to be constantly campaigning for office," he said.

Hornthal, an attorney since 1963, also believes the proposal would violate the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government that are outlined in the state constitution.

He believes the motivation for the proposal comes from a desire by conservative members of the Republican-led Legislature to dominate the judiciary — a desire he believes would be detrimental to the administration of justice if achieved.

"The extent of this legislature's interference with the judiciary is unprecedented," he said.

The proposal comes in the wake of other changes to the judiciary the GOP-dominated Legislature has enacted since Roy Cooper, a Democrat, won the governor’s race last fall, and Republicans lost their majority on the seven-member state Supreme Court.

This spring, lawmakers passed a law requiring District and Superior Court judges to be elected on a partisan basis. And just this month, lawmakers overrode Cooper’s veto of a bill they passed eliminating judicial primaries in 2018.

More recently, The News and Observer reported, legislators are considering a judicial appointment system, as well as a House bill redrawing district court and superior court districts.

In a statement, Cooper said lawmakers are angry their "bad laws" continue to be overturned by the courts. He claimed that eliminating the primary was lawmakers’ “first step” to pushing for a constitutional amendment "that will rig the system by moving to partisan, legislative selection of judges.”

“Allowing legislators to pick their own judges for political reasons is a bad idea," Cooper said.

As a state senator in 1995, Cooper supported a constitutional amendment that would have given the governor the power to nominate judges. Under the proposal, the governor’s appointments would have had to win legislative confirmation.

Rabon, in prepared remarks last week, defended his and Lewis’ proposal to reduce judicial terms to two years.

"I felt it was important that the discussion ... include an option that allows our citizens to vote more frequently on judges," he said.

Lewis said the legislation would give voters the option to change judges just like they can now change lawmakers.

"I hear concerns from my constituents all the time about judges legislating from the bench," he said. "Under this amendment, if a voter feels like a judge is acting like a legislator, they can vote to change their judge every two years just like they can vote to change their legislator every two years.”

But local attorney Danny Donahue, who specializes in criminal defense law, disagrees that judicial terms should be reduced to two years. Like Hornthal, he believes shortening judges’ terms would reduce their time in the courtroom and increase their time stumping for votes.

"It means they're going to be in constant campaign mode," he said.

Donahue said he believes it’s important for judges to remain impartial when they are determining what’s just and what isn’t.

"And I don't know how you can do that when you constantly have to be in politics," he said.

Donahue noted that even though Elizabeth City is small compared to more urban areas, the local courts are constantly busy with crime cases and other matters. He believes justice is better served with District and Superior Court judges spending their time deciding those cases, not attending chicken dinners, giving speeches and pressing the flesh to round up votes.

State Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, said he doesn't know if  it's necessary to have judges running for election every two years.

"As a matter of fact, I don't think legislators should be running every two years," Steinburg said.

Steinburg said he would support a compromise that extends the terms of state House and state Senate members to four years while keeping judges’ terms as they’re currently structured.

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