Nonpartisan, Merit-Based System to Fill Judicial Vacancies Approved by N.C. House

Raleigh, N.C. – A proposed constitutional amendment to implement a nonpartisan, merit-based system to fill judicial vacancies between elections in North Carolina was tentatively approved by the state House of Representatives on Wednesday and could be considered by voters in November. 

Senate Bill 814 Judicial Vacancy Sunshine Amendment would establish a Nonpartisan Judicial Merit Commission and local merit selection committees appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Governor, and the General Assembly.  None of the three branches appointing authorities could be granted a majority of appointments to the commissions.

The Judicial Vacancy Sunshine Amendment would not change the process for regular judicial elections.

Under the proposed constitutional amendment, the people of North Carolina would be empowered to nominate their fellow citizens to fill any judicial vacancy and submit their name to the Nonpartisan Judicial Merit Commission.

The commission would evaluate each nominee’s qualifications and submit a review of each candidate to the General Assembly.

The General Assembly would review the qualified nominees submitted by the nonpartisan commission and advance at least two nominees to the governor for consideration.  The governor would appoint the recommended nominee he or she deems best qualified within 10 days.

Rep. Justin Burr (R-Stanly), a co-chair of the Joint Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting, said the current process allowing governors to unilaterally fill judicial vacancies based on political patronage instead of merit has been abused, does not instill public confidence, and is often used to circumvent the will of the voters:

“Our current system for selecting judges for filling vacancies is probably the most undemocratic process that we could have,” Burr said during debate on Wednesday. 

“This amendment will shine a bright light on the current closed door, back-room process where one person, in a state of 10 million people, personally chooses who will serve as a future judge of our state.”    

Burr also noted that incumbent judges often coordinate with governors to retire prior to the end of their term so they can hand-pick their replacement.

“I actually think this proposed amendment will help reduce the number of vacancies to the judicial branch for that very reason,” Burr said.  “Judges will no longer be able to work out some deal to get their friend appointed to their seat.  That’s a good thing, it means they will have to run, in an election.”

The proposal follows months of public hearings and expert testimony in the General Assembly to consider changes to North Carolina’s system of selecting judges.

If the governor did not appoint a nominee within 10 days, the General Assembly could appoint a candidate to fill a judicial vacancy in a joint session by a majority of each chamber present and voting.

“I am confident that North Carolina voters will support a new and open process that focuses on the personal qualifications of each candidate to fill a judicial vacancy between elections and allow all three branches of government to participate and provide for much greater transparency over our current process,” Burr said.  

Appointees would hold office until the next election following the first election for members of the General Assembly after the appointment occurs.

It also authorizes the Chief Justice to fill judicial vacancies in certain circumstances, such as a vacancy that occurs within 60 days of a general election or if the General Assembly adjourned sine die for more than 30 days.