Citizen Green: The last great North Carolina moderate

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As North Carolina’s previous governor, Pat McCrory was a disaster. He ran as a pro-business moderate Republican, and then swerved hard to the right. Confronted with conservative Republican supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly bent on restricting access to abortion, punishing transgender people, restricting voting rights and curbing the power of local government, McCrory jumped on the bandwagon and pretended to be the driver. His whimpering protest that he lost his reelection bid because of massive voter fraud was pathetic and tantamount to slander.

Yet if McCrory’s disgraceful legacy holds one redeeming feature, it’s that he appointed Mark Martin to fill the vacancy for state Supreme Court chief justice in 2014. Martin was already running for the seat and may well have won without the benefit of incumbency, but in making the appointment, McCrory chose a political moderate and true public servant of the mold that many voters expected of the governor himself. In an era of deep cynicism when political heroes seem to have vanished from the scene, maybe we should take a moment to hold up Chief Justice Martin as a public servant to admire and emulate.

A year after taking office as chief justice, Martin convened the NC Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice, whose final report in March includes recommendations that range from revamping the state court system’s website and launching a speakers bureau to promote civics education to encouraging lawyers to provide pro bono services to indigent criminal defendants. Most significantly, the commission recommended raising the age of adult jurisdiction from 16 to 18. When New York State discontinued the practice earlier this year, North Carolina became the only remaining state in the union to prosecute 16-year-olds as adults.

The initiative might have seemed like the hopeless pet project of progressive criminal justice reformers. Indeed, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which once provided a legal defense for the North Carolina Latin Kings and prevented the reopening of the White Street Landfill in Greensboro, took up “raise the age” as a cause. Progressive city councils passed resolutions urging the General Assembly to implement the reform.

It must be credited to the respect commanded by Chief Justice Martin that the state budget passed last week included the “raise the age” initiative, along with the funds necessary for implementation.

Addressing the NC Bar Association on June 24, Martin made the kind of bipartisan appeal for reform that has virtually disappeared from the public discourse in our exceedingly divided state.

The current system “puts young people in our state at a huge competitive disadvantage compared with young people from the rest of the country because we know we are living in the midst of a global marketplace,” Martin said. “While juvenile proceedings are confidential, adult criminal proceedings and their consequences are a matter of public record, and a criminal record can affect eligibility for employment, for military service and even for college financial aid, among other things.”

There was the left hook, and then came the knockout from the right.

“The good news is that we can avoid these negative consequences while also reducing crime,” he added. “National data suggests that recidivism rates among 16- and 17-year-olds whose cases are handled by the adult criminal justice system are more than twice as high as cases that are handled in our juvenile courts.”

With a major criminal justice reform practically in the pocket, Chief Justice Martin is making another audacious proposal — to take politics out of the way we select our judges.

It’s a good idea. Virtually every consequential piece of legislation passed by the General Assembly winds up getting litigated in the state courts. The inevitable result is an expensive battle by special interests to determine the partisan balance of the nominally nonpartisan Supreme Court. Outside groups spent $2.9 million on the race won by Justice Paul Newby in 2012 that tilted the court in the Republicans’ favor, according to the Institute for Southern Studies’ “Facing South” website. Almost as much was spent on the 2016 contest won by Justice Michael Morgan, which flipped the court back to the Democrats. Donations to Morgan’s conservative opponent included $1,000 from Thomas Farr, a lawyer who successfully defended the state’s 2011 redistricting maps against claims of racial discrimination before the court.

Under the system proposed by Chief Justice Martin, a panel appointed by both the governor and General Assembly would rate judicial candidates as well qualified, qualified or not qualified, and an “appropriate governmental authority” would make appointments, but retention elections would be held periodically to ensure voters retained confidence in their judges. Yes, there is the possibility that a governor or powerful lawmaker in the pocket of an industry with a vested interest could put someone on the panel to appoint a friendly judge, but that has to be better than the corrupt arrangement currently in place.

“What the people of our state need the most is a qualified and independent judiciary,” Martin said in Asheville. “So today I’m calling on the General Assembly to let the people of North Carolina decide whether to amend the state constitution to change how our judges are selected.”

Let’s do this.