Judicial selection in North Carolina

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Judicial selection in the states
Judicial selection in North Carolina
Seal of North Carolina.png
North Carolina Supreme Court
Method:   Nonpartisan election of judges
Term:   8 years
North Carolina Court of Appeals
Method:   Nonpartisan election of judges
Term:   8 years
North Carolina Superior Courts
Method:   Nonpartisan election of judges
Term:   8 years
North Carolina District Courts
Method:   Nonpartisan election of judges
Term:   4 years

Selection of state court judges in North Carolina occurs through nonpartisan elections, making North Carolina one of fourteen states to utilize this method.[1] Judges wishing to serve additional terms must run for re-election.[2]

Under the North Carolina Constitution, judges' terms begin on January 1 following their election or re-election.

Selection process

See also: Nonpartisan election of judges

The seven justices of the North Carolina Supreme Court, the 15 judges of the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the 95 judges of the North Carolina Superior Courts are all chosen in nonpartisan elections to serve eight-year terms. If a judge wishes to serve additional terms, he or she must run for re-election.[2]

For more information on these elections, see the North Carolina judicial elections page.

Selection of the chief justice or judge

The process of selecting a chief justice or judge varies by court level:

  • The chief justice of the supreme court is elected by voters to serve in that capacity for a full eight-year term. North Carolina is one of only seven states in which the chief justice is elected by voters.
  • The chief judge of the court of appeals is selected by the supreme court chief justice to serve indefinitely.
  • The chief judge of each superior court is chosen by seniority.[2]


To serve on any of these three courts, a judge must be:

  • "learned in the law" and
  • under the age of 72 (retirement at 72 is mandatory).[2]


In the event of a midterm vacancy, the outgoing judge is replaced via merit selection. With the help of a judicial nominating commission, the governor appoints a successor to serve until the next general election occurring more than 60 days after the vacancy occurred. A judge is then elected to serve out the remainder of the unexpired term.[2]

Limited jurisdiction courts

See also: Nonpartisan election of judges

The North Carolina District Courts, the only limited jurisdiction courts in the state, also utilize nonpartisan elections in the selection of judges. District judges serve four-year terms, after which they must run for re-election if they wish to continue serving.[3]


To serve on this court, a judge must be:

  • licensed to practice law in the state;
  • a district resident; and
  • under the age of 72 (retirement at 72 is mandatory).[3]


Selection methods in North Carolina have undergone significant changes since the inception of the judiciary. Below is a timeline noting the various stages, from the most recent to the earliest:

  • 2011: Governor Bev Perdue created a merit selection panel to assist in the filling of judicial vacancies in the appellate and superior courts.
  • 2002: The Judicial Campaign Reform Act was passed, establishing nonpartisan elections for appellate judges and giving candidates the option of public financing. See the Reform efforts section below.
  • 2001: Nonpartisan elections are established for district court judges.
  • 1996: Nonpartisan elections are established for superior court judges, with judges now elected by voters of their respective districts rather than of the entire state.
  • 1977: Governor Jim Hunt created a commission selection panel to assist in filling midterm vacancies on the superior courts. The executive order held until 1985, the duration of his time in office.
  • 1967: The North Carolina Court of Appeals was created.
  • 1868: Established that all judges are to be elected by popular vote to eight-year terms.
  • 1776: Established that all judges are to be appointed for life by the general assembly.[4]

Reform efforts

In almost every legislative session since 1971, some method of change has been proposed for the state's process of judicial selection. Most of them have been attempts to incorporate a system of merit selection, or a assisted appointment method of judicial selection.[5]

2013: Voter Information Verification Act

In 2013, campaign finance laws were amended by the North Carolina General Assembly in House Bill 589, effective in 2014. Some of these changes included:

  • Public financing was made no longer available for judicial candidates. Candidates who qualified used to receive $250,000 to finance their campaigns. All eight candidates for statewide judicial offices qualified for public financing in 2012. Most of the funding came from voluntary fees.
  • The amount an individual donor may contribute to a judicial candidate increased from $1,000 to $5,000.
  • Limitations on the amount an individual can donate to independent organizations which may use the money to promote or attack candidates were eliminated.
  • The requirement that candidates appear in ads to say they approved it or list their top five donors in a print ad was removed.[6][7][8]

2012: Public financing struck down in federal court

On May 18, 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Louise Flanagan struck down parts of North Carolina's public financing program for outspent appellate court candidates. The program provided extra funds to help candidates who were outspent by privately-funded opponents.

Two committees representing the anti-abortion group North Carolina Right to Life argued against the matching fund provisions, pointing to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2012 that struck down a similar program in Arizona. They said that it limited free political speech.

Judge Flanagan agreed with the committees, writing: "The court finds that the North Carolina matching funds statute is unduly burdensome and not sufficiently justified to survive First Amendment scrutiny."[9]

The decision was based off of the precedent set by a U.S. Supreme Court decision, where the justices determined that such rescue funds did not help level the playing field or reduce corruption, as supporters of the provisions had argued.

The decision did not affect the following elections, since the North Carolina State Board of Elections had already decided not to offer any matching funds to 2012 judicial candidates. Future state supreme and appellate court candidates could still receive some public funding assistance, since Judge Flanagan only ruled against portions of the program.[9]

2011: Changes across the nation

The gains made in state houses by the Republican Party in the 2010 election reverberated across the nation in proposed changes to judicial selection. In the first four months of 2011, 64 measures proposing changes were introduced in statehouses nationwide.[10]

Judicial nomination panel created

In April, Governor Bev Perdue issued Executive Order 86 to create a statewide panel that screens applicants for the state appellate courts and the superior courts. Along with legal qualifications, the North Carolina Judicial Nominating Commission was instructed to consider diversity, gender, ethnicity and geography of the applicants as well. For each vacancy, the statewide panel was to select the names of three nominees to forward to the governor, who would appoint one.[11][12]

North Carolina State Legislative Office Building

Legislative action

2011 was a busy year for the North Carolina State Legislature. Like many other states with Republican-dominated assemblies, legislators in North Carolina made judicial selection a priority. In June, the North Carolina House of Representatives passed a bill (67-51) that would have returned to the partisan election of judges. Proponents felt party labels provided voters with more insight into a judicial candidate. Opponents to the bill unquestionably disagreed with partisan labels for judges.[13][14][15] However, the bill was never enacted into law.

Bar Association plan

In an effort to fight the tide toward a return to partisan elections, the North Carolina Bar Association proposed a different plan for altering judicial selection in the state. The idea would have allowed the bar association to nominate two individuals to fill a vacancy, then the governor would appoint one of those two. Both nominees would then run in the next election and the winner would take office. The new judge would be subject to retention elections every eight years.[16]

The proposal was unique and generated conversation in the state. Following a hearing on April 28, the Senate took no further action on the proposed measure. Such a sweeping change would ultimately need to be approved by voters in the form of a constitutional amendment.[17]

2002: Judicial Campaign Reform Act

In 2002, the Judicial Campaign Reform Act was passed by the North Carolina General Assembly. With this, the legislature made the appellate courts (the supreme court and court of appeals) the last in the state to participate in nonpartisan judicial elections. Also, the act allowed for public financing of statewide judicial candidate elections. The public financing program was the first of its kind enacted for judicial races in the nation. Money to support it came from the choice of residents to check a box on their tax return forms, lawyer fees and private donations.[18]


Before 2002, there were six substantial attempts to alter the state's method of judicial selection.

  • 1974: A bill to adopt merit selection made it through two readings in the North Carolina House of Representatives.
  • 1977: A bill to adopt merit selection failed in the house.
  • 1989: The North Carolina Senate passed a bill adopting merit selection for appellate judges. It was not passed in the house.
  • 1991: The Senate passed a bill adopting merit selection with confirmation by the legislature. It never got out of committee in the house.
  • 1995: The Senate passed a bill adopting merit selection with confirmation by the legislature. It did not receive the required three-fifths vote in the house.
  • 1999: Same as 1995.[5]

Selection of federal judges

United States district court judges, who are selected from each state, go through a different selection process than that of state judges.

The district courts are served by Article III federal judges who are appointed for life, during "good behavior." They are usually first recommended by senators (or members of the House, occasionally). The President of the United States of America nominates judges, who must then be confirmed by the United States Senate in accordance with Article III of the United States Constitution.[19]

Step ApprovedA Candidacy Proceeds DefeatedD Candidacy Halts
1. Recommendation made by Congress member to the President President nominates to Senate Judiciary Committee President declines nomination
2. Senate Judiciary Committee interviews candidate Sends candidate to Senate for confirmation Returns candidate to President, who may re-nominate to committee
3. Senate votes on candidate confirmation Candidate becomes federal judge Candidate does not receive judgeship

See also

External links


  1. American Bar Association, "Judicial Selection: The Process of Choosing Judges," accessed September 15, 2014
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 American Judicature Society, "Methods of Judicial Selection: North Carolina," archived October 3, 2014
  3. 3.0 3.1 American Judicature Society, "Methods of Judicial Selection: North Carolina," archived October 3, 2014
  4. American Judicature Society, "History of Reform Efforts: North Carolina," accessed August 19, 2014
  5. 5.0 5.1 American Judicature Society, "History of Reform Efforts: North Carolina," archived October 3, 2014
  6. Huffington Post, "North Carolina Legislature Repeals Popular 'Voter Owned Elections' Program," July 26, 2013
  7. WRAL, "Voting changes head to governor," July 26, 2013
  8. General Assembly of North Carolina, "House Bill 589, Ratified," Session 2013
  9. 9.0 9.1 NECN, "Judge agrees NC matching funds provision unlawful," May 21, 2012
  10. Columbia Daily Tribune, "GOP targets judicial selection," November 28, 2010
  11. NBC17, "Perdue forms panel to help with NC judge decisions," April 5, 2011
  12. Office of the North Carolina Governor, "Press Release: Gov. Perdue Takes Step to Remove Politics from Judicial Appointments," April 5, 2011
  13. Citizen Times, "NC Bar: Judges, politics don't mix," June 23, 2011
  14. Ballotpedia, "North Carolina State Senate"
  15. Judgepedia, "North Carolina governor vetoes voter ID bill," June 28, 2011
  16. Real Clear Politics, "Thursday at the North Carolina General Assembly," April 28, 2011
  17. Charlotte Observer, "Change floated for choosing Superior, appellate judges," April 29, 2011
  18. NCjudges.org, "The Judicial Campaign Reform Act," archived May 13, 2008
  19. US Courts, "FAQ: Federal Judges," accessed March 26, 2015
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