Judicial Commission reforms hurt transparency

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The ease and convenience of the Internet has simplified life in so many ways – everything from paying bills, to ordering airline tickets, to checking the backgrounds of public officials.

But as more information becomes available and the workings of government evolve into something truly approaching transparency, governments have taken steps to maintain a certain amount of secrecy about their actions.

The N.C. General Assembly passed reforms last year that put so many privacy guarantees in place for the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission that the commission’s Executive Director, Paul Ross, told a reporter for The (Raleigh) News & Observer he couldn’t even comment on whether there were cases pending against judges in North Carolina.

The last available report indicated the commission had begun formal investigations into six complaints against judges, and one case was awaiting the filing of charges. Twenty-one complaints awaited initial review.

That was Dec. 31. A new law went into effect the next day that took away the commission’s power to publicly disclose charges filed against a judge or even to issue a public reprimand against a judge.

As a result, we may never know again how many complaints have been filed against North Carolina judges or if any have been filed at all.

The commission didn’t seek the changes enacted by the legislature. Neither did the N.C. Supreme Court, which now must rule on many of the cases that had been routinely handled by the commission.

The N.C. Bar Association asked Gov. Pat McCrory to veto the legislation – its first-ever request for such an action. Instead, McCrory signed the bill into law without comment.

Transparency is the single biggest safeguard the public has against poor performances on the part of judges and other elected officials.

It’s a shame how much insight lawmakers took away by passing such an ill-conceived and unnecessary reform package.