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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Muddled magistrates

This afternoon politics in North Carolina took an unexpected and fascinating turn.

Let's review. After the Republican Party took over the North Carolina General Assembly in 2011, they proposed a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. It came to a referendum in 2012 as Amendment One and was adopted by 61% of voters, although turnout was rather low (35%). Only eight of North Carolina's one hundred counties voted against it. I'm happy to write that I live in one of the eight and that I voted against the amendment. It was subsequently nullified by decisions of the federal courts — but that doesn't mean the majority of North Carolinians instantly changed their minds.

Now go back even farther. Prior to 1970, North Carolina utilized Justices of the Peace. You probably remember JPs ridiculed in movies and television as stupid, biased, or crooked. Not all were, but enough were. In 1970 JPs were replaced by a General Court of Justice. What most North Carolinians don't know is that the JP concept endures in the form of magistrates. By intent, magistrates in North Carolina come from the public. The theory is that magistrates provide public input at the lowest level of the justice system. Unlike judges, magistrates are not required to be members of the North Carolina Bar; anyone with a college degree can be appointed a magistrate, and the essential qualification is confidence of the local Clerk of Superior Court and the senior resident Superior Court judge in the appointee. Performing marriages is only one of many functions that magistrates perform, but to same-sex couples it's an important duty because they have unfortunately been hounded out of most churches where they might otherwise get married.

With those two histories, we arrive at 2014 when some North Carolina magistrates resisted performing marriages of same-sex couples because the magistrates found it abhorrent. Earlier this week the North Carolina General Assembly passed a bill allowing magistrates to decline to perform same-sex marriages. Today, Governor Pat McCrory — himself a Republican — announced that he will veto the bill.

In my mind, Governor McCrory did the right thing. Magistrates are officers of the court who are bound to obey and to apply the law uniformly without personal bias.

But it's fascinating to see a Republican governor from one of the eight counties that opposed Amendment One veto a bill from a General Assembly dominated by Republicans. Will the veto be overridden? If so, will a federal court nullify this bill too, and how long might that take? Stay tuned.