Judicial hearings should remain open to public

To the Editor:

When sponsors can’t give a good reason for proposed legislation, it usually means there are bad ones. It’s not hard to perceive the bad ones behind House Bill 652, which would wreck the way North Carolina polices judicial integrity.

Presently, the Commission on Judicial Standards — comprised of judges, lawyers, and lay citizens — investigates complaints from the public, dismisses as unfounded all but a few of them, and goes thoroughly into the substantial ones. It can reprimand a judge on its own authority, or recommend that the Supreme Court impose suspension or even removal. If formal hearings are ordered, the commission’s proceedings are public.

These are rare events. Among 1,420 cases received over the past five years, there were 54 letters of caution, 13 public reprimands, 10 public hearings, and four recommendations for discipline filed.

But someone evidently wants these to be even rarer. HB 652 calls for all proceedings to remain secret unless and until a majority of what is now a politically polarized Supreme Court agrees to impose discipline on a judge. Worse, it would allow the justices to sit in judgment on their own colleagues — a duty now properly assigned to an independent panel of senior Court of Appeals judges.    

This lends itself to cover-ups and cronyism — exactly what one would want, perhaps, if one is a Supreme Court justice who fears being accused of favoring campaign contributors. It amounts to an engraved invitation to corrupt the courts.

The only explanation sponsors offered for HB 652 is that some of the justices wanted it. Chief Justice Sarah Parker made clear that she did not.

The possibility of campaign-related misconduct is much greater now that the General Assembly, in the massive voter suppression bill, has repealed public financing for judicial campaigns and increased to $5,000 from $1,000 the maximum contribution to a candidate for judge.

The secrecy in which the General Assembly — or should we say the General Assassins? — wants to envelop judicial misconduct reminds me of Florida’s situation in the mid-1970s. Two justices tried to fix cases for campaign supporters in lower courts. One of them was acting on behalf of a man appealing a bribery conviction, who had also bribed him. But Florida’s judicial discipline agency couldn’t agree on what to do about it, and for a long time no one else knew.

Two justices also let a lawyer lobby them out of court on a major case and accepted a secret draft opinion from him. When the chief justice heard of it, he ordered a cover-up. Thanks to courageous whistle-blowers and the press, the mess was eventually exposed and cleaned up. Two justices resigned, and the constitution was amended to open all disciplinary cases once probable cause is found to proceed with them.

Given the awesome powers judges have, their ethics must be impeccable, far more so than what is expected of legislators and other politicians. With House Bill 652, the General Assembly makes plain that it doesn’t much care whether judges are ethical. But the people care, and we will remember

 Martin A. Dyckman


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