University of Denver

A Missed Opportunity in the Tarheel State

Former Manager, Quality Judges Initiative

In April 2011, North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue entered Executive Order 86, which created a judicial nominating commission to screen applicants and recommend the best qualified candidates for judicial vacancies that arise between elections. Governor Perdue appointed members to the nominating commission in January of this year and, in March, the commission convened public hearings around the state to get citizens' input on the qualities and characteristics judges should possess. Since that time, the commission has screened applicants for two superior court vacancies. Governor Perdue’s office also sought public input on the commission's nominees for these vacancies.

In eight other states, governors with the authority to appoint judges have taken a similar step, but the process established in North Carolina has a unique feature among states that elect all of their judges—i.e., the governor committed herself to appointing one of the nominees recommended by the commission. In other elective states, nominating commissions established by executive order serve a purely advisory function.

In the final days of Governor Perdue's term, she will be filling the supreme court vacancy created by the unanticipated retirement of Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson, the only African-American woman to serve on the state's high court. Given the short time frame in which the appointment must be made, the governor has decided to forego use of the commission and make a direct appointment. As a necessary step, she entered Executive Order 137, “temporarily modifying” the selection process prescribed in Executive Order 86 for all vacancies that may arise before she leaves office.

We understand the time constraints but lament her decision, particularly when the original executive order allowed for an expedited screening process. Governor Perdue put in place a leading-edge concept, designed to reduce the impact of politics on the judiciary, and we are very sorry to see her bypass it. In a state that just saw a highly politicized supreme court contest, in which the ideological balance of the court was at stake and outside groups spent approximately $3 million, this was an opportunity to showcase a judicial selection process in which qualifications and experience would take precedence over political and other considerations. It was also a chance to educate the public about the qualities that judges should possess and to promote greater confidence in the process for selecting such judges.

We hope that governors in other states will create such commissions, and commit themselves to their use – even if the process might need to be expedited to meet time demands.