For most of the 241 years since North Carolina adopted its first constitution there have been arguments about the proper balance and separations of power between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. Our constitution has generally served us well, but recent court cases and legislation suggest we need to revise our governing document.
A constitution is essentially a contract between the people and its government. It was never intended to be a “one and done” document; neither was it designed to be changed too frequently. There have been two major revisions since the 1776 constitution. The first, following the Civil War in 1868, gave more power to the governor and the people. The latest, the 1971 constitution, eliminated some unconstitutional provisions, updated the language and better organized the document. Since its passage there have been 20 Amendments, including requirements for a balanced budget, that judges be lawyers, allowing gubernatorial succession, giving the governor veto power and adding victims’ rights.
The basic understanding of our government is that the General Assembly will pass laws, the governor and Council of State will administer and execute those laws and the courts will interpret laws to determine their constitutionality and dispense justice.
In recent months we have seen many challenges to our constitution. It would be helpful if there were further clarity delineating the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. While the governance of public education was better defined in the 1971 Constitution, questions still linger as to who is in charge. Issues such as redistricting, election laws, eminent domain and proper uses of public money deserve clarification, but nowhere is the need for change better illustrated than in the recent debates of our judiciary.
What we desire is having the best judges deciding court cases. This involves how we select them, how long they should serve and how to ensure they are making valid judicial decisions. There is documented evidence that the public seldom knows the legal qualifications or the character of prospective judges for whom they vote and for decades we have discussed potential improvements as to how to put the best qualified jurists in our courtrooms. While the public is not inclined to give up their right to vote for judges, there is mounting evidence justice would be better served with some nonpartisan, impartial selection process.
Lawmakers have frequently been irked that courts rule against laws they have passed and often assert judicial decisions are politically motivated. We doubt that is often the case, but assuming there is some truth to the claims, how is justice better served by requiring that judicial candidates list their political affiliations on the election ballot? Currently, our legislature is considering changing the length of judicial terms to two years, another questionable consideration. This would require judges have to frequently stand for election. Do you want a partisan politician determining your fate in a court case or someone who delivers verdicts based on the rule of law and our constitution?
Collectively, the many challenges make the case that it is time for us to once again review and revise our state constitution. It’s been almost half a century since it was last done. We need a new state contract.
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.