by Senator Michael Garrett

We’ve heard a lot in recent months from Republican legislators about partisan NC judges overstepping their power by reigning in the General Assembly. The truth is that the seeds of politicizing our courts were planted and tended to by Republican legislative majorities for the last decade. In fact, this has been a cornerstone of their larger assault on our democratic norms.

Let’s roll back the clock to 2013. For a decade up to this year, 80 percent of NC judicial candidates, both conservatives and liberals, took part in a voluntary program that offered public campaign financing in exchange for strict campaign-spending limits. The aim of this program was to limit the partisan influence that comes with high-dollar fundraising efforts seen in non-judicial races.

In 2013, the new Republican supermajority in the General Assembly ended this program, the NC Public Campaign Fund, when it passed HB 589. This bill was the first of many direct attacks on voting rights and free and fair elections in North Carolina.

Among its provisions, HB 589:

• Shortened early voting,

• Eliminated same-day voter registration during early voting,

• Eliminated pre-registration of 16-17 year-olds, and

• Repealed the NC Public Campaign Fund.

With partial public financing of judicial campaigns a thing of the past, candidates for judge were left with no other option than to fund their campaigns just like candidates for partisan offices.

Fast forward to 2017. The Republican supermajority passed HB 100 and then overrode Governor Cooper’s veto of it. Among other things, this bill made all NC Superior and District Court judicial races partisan. A “D” or “R” would appear on the ballot for each candidate just like other partisan races. More insidiously, candidates were pushed to run as a Republican or a Democrat rather than as an independent. The law forced independent candidates to gather signatures of 2 percent of all the voters in the district just to run without a party label.

That brings us to 2022.

Today, judicial races for all NC courts are as politicized as they have ever been. This is no mistake or accident. It is part of a years-long, concerted effort by Republicans in the General Assembly and their influential donors to reduce our courts to just one more partisan battlefield to be won each election year.

Yet, despite Republicans’ best efforts to polarize and discredit the judicial branch, I believe that our judges still act with integrity and impartiality. And I believe in the intelligence of voters to elect judges that will interpret the law on behalf of the people regardless of their political affiliation.

The judicial branch has endured a barrage of attacks from the right — whether it’s dragging them into the political fray, or accusing them of participating in the partisan theater of their own creation.

I’m as troubled as anyone by the growing partisanship in our courts in North Carolina and beyond. It is not too late to roll back some of these law changes in recent years and de-politicize the bench. However, as long as Republican legislators cry foul over rulings that overturn laws they have passed, remember that modern NC courts are products of their own creation.

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