Since I started writing this blog, one of the unexpected pleasures has been the number of lawyers, prosecutors, and judges who have reached out to tell me how much they respected my father. My dad is a retired Superior Court Judge who spent his career travelling around the state holding court. Several lawyers commented that he would never eat lunch with the lawyers or district attorneys and routinely declined social invitations because he did not want to appear biased. My mother says he even applied that code to their social life in Anson County.
I grew up believing that our courts should be as apolitical as possible, even if my father had to run for re-election every four or eight years. Democrats in the early part of this century seemed to believe that, too. They made judicial races nonpartisan and provided public financing for statewide appellate courts. Even before then, judges didn’t ask directly for contributions. They mostly had surrogates do it. They were attempting to prevent the politicization of courts that had happened in other states and it seemed to be working.
When Republicans took control of the legislature in 2011, they had different ideas. They wanted to make the courts as political as possible. They made all judicial races partisan and scrapped the public financing program. They got what they wanted: expensive, highly partisan judicial races and a politicized judiciary.
Now, Justice Phil Berger, Jr. is actually headlining fundraising events for state legislators. Not only that, he’s a co-sponsor of an event along with House Speaker Tim Moore who is a defendant in cases before Berger’s court. He’s not only willing to eat lunch with people who have business before him, he’s helping them buy the meal. There’s no longer any veneer of nonpartisanship on the court and, in Berger’s case, there’s no veneer of impartiality.
Republicans can make the case that judicial races should be partisan, but they can’t make the case that the judiciary should be biased and that’s what Berger has done. If Berger was helping an accused felon with an appeal before the Supreme Court raise money for a new business, he would never be allowed to hear the case. If he’s going to publicly and financially support political defendants or plaintiffs, he should never be allowed to hear cases that involve them.
Phil Berger should recuse himself from hearing the upcoming voter ID case or any cases that may involve the legislature. He’s proving that he is biased, not impartial. If he won’t recuse himself, he should be removed. My father’s personal code of judicial conduct may seem quaint in today’s hyper-partisan political environment, but Phil Berger, Jr.’s conduct appears corrupt in any time period.