TAR HEEL VIEW: NC Court of Appeals ballot not very appealing

Sometimes the worst corruption doesn’t happen when laws are broken, but when they are made.

Case in point: Court of Appeals races are supposed to be nonpartisan, in that parties don’t nominate judges. But legislation, passed along party lines by the Republican majority in the General Assembly last year, now requires party affiliations of Court of Appeals candidates to be listed on ballots this year. With that preliminary work taken care of, Senate Bill 667, ratified July 1 by the General Assembly, then changed the ballot order for state Court of Appeals candidates (only), bringing that court’s candidates into the system that governs ballot order for elections.

Why would anyone do that?

No one is talking, especially in the Senate Pro-Tem’s office, but the bill, awaiting Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature, was sponsored by only one legislator: Republican Sen. Tom Apodaca, who recently resigned. Republican judges, and one in particular, can consider it Apodaca’s parting gift.

The odd North Carolinians who prefer fairness and non-partisanship in the state’s high courts might want to hold their noses while reading the clause in the bill that describes the proposed new format for electing their judges:

“Candidates for judge of the Court of Appeals on a general election official ballot shall appear in the following order:

1) Candidates registered with political parties that reflect at least five percent of statewide voter registration, according to the most recent statistical report published by the State Board of Elections, in alphabetical order by party beginning with the party whose nominee for Governor received the most votes in the most recent gubernatorial election and in alphabetical order within the party; 2) Candidates registered with other political parties, in alphabetical order by party and in alphabetical order within the party; and 3) Unaffiliated candidates, in alphabetical order.”

Several controlled scholarly studies have shown that ballot placement can significantly affect electoral success, giving the greatest advantage to lower-ballot candidates, such as judges. Whouda thunk it? as the late great baseball manager Casey Stengel used to ask.

Incumbent N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Linda Stephens, a Democrat, was among those surprised.

“I’ve never seen anything like it at all,” Stephens said. Chalk that up to shortsightedness.

It so happens that the law, if enacted, will only involve two judicial candidates in the November election: Stephens, the only incumbent Democrat on the bench, and former Rockingham County District Attorney Phil Berger Jr.

His name should be familiar. His father is the Republican state senator from Eden and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger Sr. That’s a guy Apodaca knows well. The two conservatives have been the Senate’s most powerful force in moving the body to the far right.

If Democrats have a gripe to make, they can always sue. Who knows, the case might make it all the way to the Court of Appeals.

The Greenville Daily Reflector