The North Carolina House has passed a trio of new bills that would limit the powers of Governor Roy Cooper. Two of these bills would revoke the governor's authority to fill judicial vacancies. Reporter Tom Bullock joins Morning Edition host Marshall Terry to discuss.
TB: Judges are elected in North Carolina, but judicial vacancies happen when a judge steps down, is impeached, or is required to retire when they turn 70. If any of these happens before a term is completed, you get a judicial vacancy. Currently, the governor would then get to appoint a judge to serve until the next judicial election.
But House Bill 240 would strip the governor, currently a Democrat, of that power for district court vacancies and give it to the Republican-dominated General Assembly.
House Bill 241 would do the same but for any vacancies among special superior court judges.
MT: But doesn’t the state constitution give this right to the governor?
TB: Article IV, Section 19 of the North Carolina Constitution states that these vacancies shall be filled by the governor "[u]nless otherwise provided in this Article."
These two bills would change this section of the constitution.
MT: OK, so that's two of the bills. What would the third bill do?
House Bill 239 is a bit different. It would shrink the number of judges on the North Carolina Court of Appeals from 15 to 12. Republican Representative Justin Burr is a primary sponsor of the bill and here's why, he said, a smaller court is called for.
"Judicial Branch reports have shown that over the last 10 or so years, the overall caseload of the court of appeals has steadily decreased. This proposal will reduce the court of appeals back down to the number of judges on the court before the court was expanded in 2000, which increased the court, purely, in my opinion, for political reasons."
MT: Tom, lets fact check those claims. Was the court expanded for political reasons?
TB: The 2000 expansion was done quickly by Democrats who then controlled the General Assembly. And it allowed then outgoing Democratic Governor Jim Hunt to make those appointments. So it can be argued politics was a part of the decision. But some democrats countered this on the house floor yesterday by saying two wrongs don’t make a right. Others, like Democrat Mickey Michaux, think politics is what's behind this bill now. Here's Michaux questioning bill sponsor Justin Burr.
MM: "Representative Burr you indicated in your remarks something about when the numbers went up that it was a political edge to that. Is there a political edge to your reducing the number now?"
JB: "No sir."
MM: "It's my understanding that there are three judges that are going to be retiring because of age within the next year or two. And both are Republicans. Is that correct?"
JB: "That's my understanding."
TB: And, Marshall, conservative judges currently hold the majority of the seats on the appeals court. That would change if the court stays the same size and the governor appoints these replacements. If the court shrinks, conservative judges would still hold their majority.
MT: Tom, what about the claim that the court's workload has gone down?
TB: That is a claim the only retired judge in the General Assembly disputes. His name is Joe John and he's a Democrat. He said yes, the number of cases has gone down, but that's not the whole story.
"If you include the number of motions into the total workload of the court, it would show that between 2013 and 2014, the total workload was 5,633. In 2015 and 2016 it was 5,840."
A clear increase in the work of the court.
Republicans countered that by saying the bill would shift more cases directly to the state supreme court.
It's worth pointing out that while the courts themselves have made no comment on this bill, the North Carolina Bar has come out against it saying more resources are needed by the court, not less.
MT: These three bills were passed by the house yesterday, when will the Senate take them up?
TB: They were sent to the senate by special messenger, which expedites the process. So they may be taken up as early as next week.