The Judicial System
in North Carolina
Courts occupy a special place in the structure and processes of state government and politics. Some observers argue that courts are apolitical or nonpolitical institutions in a traditional sense of those terms. Others maintain that while political considerations play a part in the composition, deliberations, and decisions of courts, their political character differs from that of the legislative and executive branches. Still others claim that courts are engaged in politics through different means but in the end are not easily and certainly not absolutely distinguished from more avowedly political institutions—the legislature and the governor, political parties and interest groups. 1
Several features of the organization and operation of the General Court of Justice in North Carolina characterize the relationship of the courts to other government agencies. An examination of aspects of judicial selection and of judicial decisionmaking illustrates these characteristics.
In the choosing of federal court judges, two features set the process apart from that for selecting legislators and the chief executive. Judges are appointed rather than elected and serve life terms; consequently, they are not subject to institutionalized review through periodic elections. The system is designed to insulate the judges from political pressures and concerns. In North Carolina's courts, all judges are chosen in partisan elections, even though the initial selection of most judges is through gubernatorial appointment. Judges in the appellate courts and the superior courts, however, serve eight-year terms—longer than other popularly elected officials, whose terms are either two or four years. The longer terms presumably free judges from immediate concerns about political acceptance of their actions and decisions. District court judges serve four-year terms. But, because these judges primarily apply laws to the facts in a particular case, they generally