North Carolina Considering Partisan Labels in Judicial Races

by Carrie Severino

North Carolina is an important front in the ongoing battle over our nation’s state courts, as I’ve written about before.  Last Thursday, Republican North Carolina state senators Jerry Tillman and Thom Goolsby presented legislation to introduce partisan affiliations to judicial elections. Senate Democrat Leader Martin Nesbitt Jr. has also expressed support for the reform. Senator Goolsby explains that without partisan affiliations, “There are places where folks put themselves on the ballot [and] nobody knows who they are. Nobody knows where they come from. They’ve not been vetted by anybody or any party, and they just pop up on ballots.” 

These reform efforts may invoke immediate outrage—isn’t this legislation just a transparent move to inject partisan political and corporate interests into elections? The empirical evidence on this topic suggests otherwise. Contrary to conventional wisdom, partisan labels actually provide useful information for voters, while also managing to preserve judicial integrity. 

Professor Chris Bonneau’s empirical survey of judicial selection backs up the utility of partisan judicial elections. In short:  

  • Nonpartisan elections are less contested and less competitive than partisan elections, and thus are “less able to effectively hold judges accountable.”
  • Nonpartisan elections are more expensive than partisan ones.
  • Nonpartisan elections have less voter participation, because voters do not otherwise have useful information about the judicial candidates at the ballot box.
  • Judges elected in nonpartisan elections are less insulated from public opinion, and are thus more likely to have their decisions align with popular opinion. 

Law Professors Choi, Gulati, and Eric Posner, in “Professionals or Politicians: The Uncertain Case for an Elected Rather than Appointed Judiciary,” have similar findings. They found that judges elected in partisan systems are more productive than “nonpartisan” judges, dissent more, and are more “independent,” or willing to challenge the opinions of their “co-partisans” than nonpartisan judges.

North Carolina’s judicial elections have been completely non-partisan since 2002, after a series of reforms that Senator Goolsby believes was designed to reduce the Republican influence over the state judicial branch. A prior version of the reform passed the North Carolina Senate in a bipartisan fashion, before dying in the North Carolina House. Now that Republicans control the governor’s mansion and the General Assembly, the reforms stand a better chance of passage. I wish Senators Goolsby and Tillman the best of luck, and will continue to report on this important reform.

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