TAR HEEL VIEW: If you can’t win court — stack it


In 1937 — flush after his landslide re-election campaign and frustrated by a conservative Supreme Court — President Roosevelt came up with a plan. For each justice older than 70, he’d appoint an “assistant,” raising the high court’s membership from nine to as many as 15 and assuring a majority of liberal Democrats.

Roosevelt’s “court-packing” scheme sank like a lead balloon. Republicans and Democrats saw it as a power grab that would threaten the independence of the judiciary. The Senate voted he plan down by a 70-22 percent margin.

Now, North Carolina seems to be getting its own version of court packing — this one concocted by Republicans.

The Winston-Salem Journal, Capitol Broadcasting and WSOC-TV all report that a faction of Republican legislators plan to push a bill to expand the state Supreme Court’s membership when Gov. Pat McCrory calls a special session of the General Assembly next month to approve extra funds for Hurricane Matthew relief.

Why? In the Nov. 8 election, Wake County Superior Court Judge Mike Morgan defeated incumbent N.C. Supreme Court Justice Robert Edmunds. That change gives Democrats a 4-3 edge among the seven justices.

Now, in North Carolina, Democratic judges rarely turn wacky; in most other states, they’d be regarded as Republicans. Still, that’s too much for some members of the GOP.

Word is, they plan to push through a bill, HB-2 style, to expand North Carolina’s Supreme Court from seven justices to nine. Gov. McCrory would then appoint two new justices — good Republicans, we are guessing — to fill the seats until the next election. That would flip the high court back to Republican control by a 5-4 vote margin.

This is the sort of raw, brass-knuckles partisanship that Republicans used to denounce when Democrats ran the show in Raleigh. Now, the GOP has proved it is no better, and, in many cases, worse.

Earlier, this year, we saw how GOP legislators, including Senate majority leader Phil Berger, pushed through a bill tampering with the name order on ballots, to give an edge in state Court of Appeals races to Republican candidates, including Berger’s own son. (At last report, Phil Jr. had eked out a narrow victory.)

Now, there is no particular need for two extra justices on the Supreme Court. The caseload is actually smaller than it was a decade ago (730 filings in 2014 versus 785 in 2007). And justices don’t come cheap: The annual salary for an associate justice in North Carolina is $140,285, not counting such amenities as offices, computers and so forth.

This legislature decided that the state’s schools had too many teachers’ aides because paying them costs too much money. Apparently, though, we can always find cash for some extra Republican judges.

Legal observers have been warning about the amount of money being pumped into state judicial races across the country; big-money interests are trying to cherry-pick their judges to ensure a friendly panel when they land in court.

In North Carolina, though, when the people make the mistake of voting for a Democrat, the Republicans — with their veto-proof majorities and tailor-made districts — simply legislate around them. One almost wonders why we bother with the charade of an election at all.

To paraphrase that great Republican, Ronald Reagan, this is no way to run a railroad — or a court system.

Wilmington Star-News

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