For the first time in its history, the North Carolina Bar Association is urging a governor to veto legislation. House Bill 652 would limit what the public could know about judges who are reprimanded for misconduct.
Last year, the Judicial Standards Commission fielded about 300 complaints against judges for things like violating legal procedure, copping an attitude in the courtroom or being biased. The commission – which consists of judges, lawyers and citizens – reviewed the allegations and ultimately dismissed all but two, which received public reprimands.
"A great blessing of our state is we've had (judges) who have had impeccable integrity throughout their service on the bench," says Wester. "But when there is the exception, you have to have the process to take care of that that."
A notable example is former Mecklenburg County District Court Judge Bill Belk. In 2009, the commission recommended he be removed from the bench for refusing to step down from a corporate board. Belk resigned before he could be removed.
But under a bill now awaiting Governor Pat McCrory's signature, none of the commission's actions against Belk would have been public. In addition, House Bill 652 strips the Judicial Standards Commission of authority to reprimand judges, leaving all forms of public discipline up to the State Supreme Court. Details of the case would remain confidential unless the Supreme Court decides to take action.
Under the current system, the Judicial Standards Commission's hearings are open to the public. John Wester says that's important, "because it will inspire confidence in the public to know this is what their government is doing with people who serve in a critical place in our society."
Without an open hearing, Wester adds, "we also can't learn when the judge is proved innocent of any wrong doing."
Both the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court and Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals have come out against the changes in House Bill 652. It passed on the last day of the legislative session, with little discussion other than a claim by its sponsor, Republican Representative Skip Stam, that a majority of Supreme Court justices wanted the changes.