Shorter Judicial Terms Could Be Problematic for Nonprofit Advocacy

A bill (S.698) under consideration in the N.C. Senate would place a constitutional amendment on the 2018 primary ballot to shorten the terms in office for state judges to two years. Currently, District Court judges serve for four-year terms, and Supreme Court justices, Court of Appeals judges, and Superior Court judges serve for eight-year terms. If the General Assembly approves this change and it receives a majority vote on the ballot in spring 2018, all state court judges would be up for election next fall. The General Assembly could take up this bill, along with other potential state constitutional amendments, when it returns to Raleigh for its next special session in January.

Why does this matter for nonprofits?

Shorter judicial terms, coupled with a new law that makes state judicial races partisan, are likely to deeply politicize North Carolina’s courts, as judges would almost always be campaigning for re-election and would need to focus more of their time and attention on raising campaign contributions and getting endorsements rather than deciding cases on the merits. This would be particularly problematic for charitable nonprofits, which often advocate in state courts on issues related to their missions (e.g. on laws related to education, housing, disability rights, or the environment) and rely on state courts for disputes related to their operations (e.g. on property tax exemption or employment issues). Unlike their opposition in litigation, charitable nonprofits can’t spend money or make endorsements to try to influence judges’ thinking. Nonprofits also would likely be harmed by less continuity on the bench and less attentiveness by state court judges to the caseloads (as they focus more time and attention on their campaigns).