Is it important for voters to know whether a judge is a Democrat or a Republican?
That is the question at the heart of the debate over whether judicial elections should be partisan.
The U.S. is a two-party system. With only rare exceptions, we elect people to the presidency, Congress, governorship, and legislatures from either the Republican or Democratic parties. These party labels are useful because they tell us something about the ideology of a candidate. Voters use party identification as shorthand to help them make up their minds about whom to vote for.
In judicial races, however, most states do not have partisan elections. According to Ballotpedia, there are seven states that have partisan races for state supreme court seats. Nine states have partisan elections for appellate court judges and twenty have partisan elections for trial court judges.
This issue has recently come up in North Carolina. Superior and district court elections were partisan in that state until 1996 and 2001, respectively. This year, Republican legislators passed a bill to once again make them partisan. Democratic Governor Roy Cooper vetoed the bill, but legislators overrode the veto. During a special session in late 2016, legislators passed a bill that made the state’s supreme court elections partisan. Then-governor Pat McCrory signed that bill into law. North Carolina supreme court candidates ran with party labels prior to the 2004 election.
Proponents of partisan judicial elections say that these party labels are needed so voters know the ideology of the judges they are electing. After all, the reasoning goes, these judges decide matters of great importance to the state, so voters should have as much information as possible to indicate how they may rule.
Opponents of partisan elections contend that judges have a different role to play than politicians. Judges interpret the law, not make it, so they should not be bringing partisan considerations into their role.
What do you think? Should judges run with party labels? Or do party politics have no role to play in judicial elections?