Judges and Supreme Court Justices are elected to fixed terms in North Carolina. However, circumstances sometimes require that they be removed before their terms are over.
There are three ways to removed judges or justices from office in North Carolina. The first, according to Article IV Section 17(1) of the North Carolina Constitution, is by a joint resolution of two-thirds of all the members of both houses of the General Assembly. This option only applies to cases of “mental or physical incapacity.”
Article IV, Section 17(2) provides for another means of removing judges and justices:
The General Assembly shall prescribe a procedure, in addition to impeachment and address set forth in this Section, for the removal of a Justice or Judge of the General Court of Justice for mental or physical incapacity interfering with the performance of his duties which is, or is likely to become, permanent, and for the censure and removal of a Justice or Judge of the General Court of Justice for wilful misconduct in office, wilful and persistent failure to perform his duties, habitual intemperance, conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude, or conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute.
The General Assembly provided the alternative means for removing judges or justices through Chapter 7A, Article 30 of the General Statutes, creating the Judicial Standards Commission. It is chaired by a Court of Appeals appointed by the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court and includes members appointed by the Judiciary, the North Carolina State Bar, the General Assembly, and the governor.
Under G.S. 7A-377 the commission can begin investigating judges on its own accord or based upon a citizen compliant. After investigating the commission can recommend that the Supreme Court issue a public reprimand, censure, suspend, or remove any judge. A majority of Supreme Court justices voting must agree to any of the aforementioned disciplinary actions. A justice may not vote if he or she is the one accused of misconduct.
The final way to remove a judge or justice is the most dramatic: impeachment. Article IV, Section 4 of the North Carolina Constitution lays out the basic procedures of impeachment:
The House of Representatives solely shall have the power of impeaching. The Court for the Trial of Impeachments shall be the Senate. When the Governor or Lieutenant Governor is impeached, the Chief Justice shall preside over the Court. A majority of the members shall be necessary to a quorum, and no person shall be convicted without the concurrence of two-thirds of the Senators present. Judgment upon conviction shall not extend beyond removal from and disqualification to hold office in this State, but the party shall be liable to indictment and punishment according to law.
Chapter 123 of the General Statutes provides more details on how an impeachment and trial is conducted and lays out impeachable offenses:
Each member of the Council of State, each justice of the General Court of Justice, and each judge of the General Court of Justice shall be liable to impeachment for the commission of any felony, or the commission of any misdemeanor involving moral turpitude, or for malfeasance in office, or for willful neglect of duty.
Legally, malfeasance includes the “wrongful or unjust doing of some act which the doer has no right to perform.” In short, a judge or justice can be impeached for doing something he or she has no right to do.
The North Carolina Constitution and our laws provide several ways to remove incompetent or malicious judges or justices. That is an important safeguard of our judicial system.