The state Court of Appeals would drop from 15 to 12 members, under a bill the legislature sent to the governor on Tuesday. Republicans said the bill would realign judges’ workload. Democrats said the real intention is to deprive the Democratic governor of replacing judges who are approaching mandatory retirement age.
The bill passed along party lines in the House and Senate. Under the proposal, the next three judges who retire would not be replaced, preserving a Republican majority on the court.
“The Republican effort to reduce the number of judges on the Court of Appeals should be called out for exactly what it is — their latest power-grab, aimed at exerting partisan influence over the judicial branch and laying the groundwork for future court-packing,” Gov. Roy Cooper’s communications director, Sadie Weiner, said in a statement released after the vote.
The legislation, House Bill 239, would also send some cases directly to the state Supreme Court, including those involving the termination of parental rights, to redistribute the workload. House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson of Knightdale said that would further delay the resolution of those cases, because of the time required in the Supreme Court for oral arguments.
Jackson unsuccessfully tried to have the bill sent back to a committee for further evaluation.
“We’re talking about taking people’s children away from them and you’re telling me we don’t have time to discuss this in committee?” Jackson said on the House floor.
Republicans claim that the appeals court’s cases have decreased. Jackson noted that no formal workload analysis had been done. An analysis of state records by the liberal Policy Watch organization published last week contradicted the data House Republicans presented at an earlier meeting.
Jackson also pointed out that no judicial officials or organized groups have come out in support of the bill, and in fact several former appeals judges have come out against it, including new state Rep. Joe John of Raleigh.
Newly appointed Rep. Marcia Morey of Durham, a Democrat who is a district court judge, also argued that children and families would be harmed by moving those cases to the higher court.
The bill’s key sponsor, Rep. Justin Burr, a Republican from Albermarle, disputed the Democrats’ claims and said the proposal had been thoroughly vetted in both chambers.
“It is good policy, no matter what the rhetoric is you hear on the other side of the aisle,” Burr said.
After the vote, Burr issued this statement:
“Judicial branch statistics indicate that over the last decade, the caseload before the North Carolina Court of Appeals has decreased. The number of filings, trials and dispositions they consider have reached levels similar to those prior to the court being packed for political purposes in 2000.
“House Bill 239 also allows the Court of Appeals to share its caseload with the state Supreme Court. As the same judicial branch reports and statistics indicate, the Supreme Court does not have a significant workload and this reform seeks to equalize the burden on both.”