There is much debate about the best way to select North Carolina’s judiciary. I was recently a candidate for the Superior Court in Guilford County. My candidacy was unsuccessful. My experience, however, convinced me that the public lacks sufficient and reliable information about judicial candidates and the role of the judiciary. Until the electorate becomes better informed about the judiciary, I will remain skeptical that electing judges is the best system for selecting our judiciary. Here’s why:
Reliable information about judicial candidates is scarce. Other than a generic voter guide, the local media in Guilford County failed to give attention to the judicial races on the primary ballot. The Greensboro News & Record editorialized about the residency of one of the candidates, but it otherwise neglected to report about the candidates’ qualifications, supporters or background. Other news organizations were equally uninterested in reporting about judicial candidates.
The North Carolina Bar Association should be commended for sponsoring the judicial candidate survey. The survey is a helpful tool in educating the public about judicial candidates. However, the survey results were released only 10 days before the primary, leaving little opportunity for candidates to advertise the results. And in Guilford County, the media did not report the survey’s results.
Available information about judicial candidates is often partisan or ideological. Although judicial elections are non-partisan, I received voter questionnaires from numerous interest groups and PACs attempting to discern my political leanings. Rather than making inquiry about legal experience or examples of professionalism, or asking for peer references, most of these questionnaires sought to stake out positions on hot button topics: “Will you agree to uphold Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), and recognize a constitutional right to abortion?” “Do you agree with Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003), which recognizes a constitutional right to homosexual sexual relations?” Others questionnaires also singled out certain attorneys: “Do you expect to seek or accept significant campaign contributions from criminal defense attorneys?”
Interest groups obviously use responses to these questionnaires to endorse certain candidates with ideological views that are aligned with their own. Most attorneys would agree, however, that a judicial candidate’s personal view about Lawrence v. Texas or any other opinion is immaterial to service as a Superior Court judge. Judges should be fair, independent and non-ideological. What is material is that judges have superior legal abilities, integrity and a strong work ethic. I declined to answer these questionnaires out of a belief that the information sought would be used to paint ideological biases, which has no place in the judiciary.
The lack of helpful information about candidates contributes to an uninformed electorate. I was surprised to find that voters were generally uninformed about the role of state courts and the responsibilities of judges. One voter asked me: “If you become a judge, will you take my gun from me?” Another asked if I would favor the “east side” of Greensboro. While this question allowed me to talk about qualities of fairness and equal access to courts, the voter’s response included a racial slur and left no doubt that I would not receive his vote. Another voter commented that an evaluation of judicial candidates would be helpful to him. When I described the NCBA survey, he scoffed at the prospect of lawyers reviewing lawyers. “That’s just like the Highway Patrol investigating the Highway Patrol,” he said. My wife was asked by another voter if I would uphold Roe v. Wade.
Without a general understanding about trial judges and their role in the judicial system, non-attorney voters are not aware of the critical questions that should be asked of candidates. I submit those questions have nothing to do with Roe v. Wade. Rather, they should include inquiries such as “What about the candidate’s prior experience qualifies him for the bench?” “Which candidate makes reasoned decisions and exhibits utmost professionalism?” “Does the candidate have judicial temperament?” “How would the candidate attempt to improve the delivery of justice or improve the court system?”
The number of voters who don’t vote in judicial races, or who randomly select a candidate, further illustrates the lack of available information. My judicial district has 68,821 registered voters but only 26,577 of them cast ballots in the 2012 primary. Interestingly, of those who showed up, only 20,351 of them voted in the Superior Court race. One can assume that the 6,000 voters who did not cast a vote lacked sufficient knowledge about the judicial candidates. That 23 percent of actual voters did not have sufficient information to vote is worrisome!
Even more troubling are votes for judicial candidates that are cast randomly. No one should want voters who select a candidate because of their place on the ballot, their gender or their name. Several voters told me they were glad to meet me. Otherwise, they confessed they would have randomly voted because they lacked any information about the judicial candidates.
No system of selecting judges — appointment, merit selection or election — is perfect. However, ignorance about a judge’s jurisdiction and responsibilities, combined with the lack of reliable information about candidates, creates the wrong environment for careful selection of judges. Having observed these circumstances firsthand, I’m doubtful that elections are the best approach.
Manning A. Connors is a trial attorney with Greensboro office Smith Moore Leatherwood.