A plan to redraw North Carolina’s court districts has emerged in the final days of the General Assembly’s session, and is on a fast track to clear the state House.
Three election maps – for superior and district court judges and district attorneys – would be changed through a bill whose proponents say it would realign districts to better reflect population growth, geography and workloads. In some cases the maps create new, smaller districts and in other cases they add judges to existing districts.
Democrats say the outcome would strongly favor Republican candidates, and questioned whether the maps would violate federal election discrimination laws that the state has already been found to have violated when it drew legislative and congressional districts.
Under the plan, judges would be allowed to finish their terms while the new districts are phased in. The bill sets out a schedule for when elections under the new districts are held, stretching to 2028. In the meantime, districts could be altered after the next round of federal Census results in 2020.
House Bill 717 emerged Sunday night, when lawmakers posted the maps on Twitter.
On Monday, a judiciary committee approved the bill along party lines and sent it to the full House for a vote.
Judges, district attorneys, trial lawyers and election reform groups asked the committee to slow down and solicit input from those involved in the court system.
The proposal would create new judicial and prosecutorial districts in some counties. Bill sponsor Rep. Justin Burr, a Republican from Albemarle, repeatedly pointed to Mecklenburg County as an example of why the redistricting was needed.
There currently are three Superior Court districts in that county. One district has a population of 141,257, another has 301,999 people and the third has 466,372 people. Half the population is able to vote for only two out of the county’s seven judges, Burr said.
“You cannot look at this map and tell me it’s fair for the people of Mecklenburg County,” Burr said. “It is not.”
The bill would reduce the number of regional divisions from eight to five. Burr said that allows for “better rotation” of Superior Court judges. Democrats contend it would allow judges from more rural, conservative districts to hear cases in Raleigh.
As it stands, Wake County is in a division that includes Chatham, Alamance, Durham, Orange, Caswell, Person, Franklin, Vance, Warren and Granville counties. Under the proposed changes, the division would stretch west as far as Union, Anson and Richmond counties, which are predominantly Republican. That means judges from those counties could be on the bench as laws are challenged in state court.
Court officials and Democratic lawmakers questioned whether the lawmakers have considered the additional travel costs of having judges preside in such an expansive district.
Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said Monday she thought it was important to periodically look for judicial economies, but she questioned why there had not been more time to study the impact of any changes.
Kristy Newton, who has been the district attorney for Hoke and Scotland counties for 22 years, spoke against the plan. She noted Hoke County would be taken out of her district and she would be placed in a district with the Robeson County district attorney, which she said would put her out of a job.
Robeson is a much bigger county with far more crime, she said.
“Robeson would dominate Scotland,” Newton said. “My citizens in Scotland County would be forgotten.”
She asked that more time be taken on the bill, and called on the legislature to come through with adequate funding for the courts, “if you’re going to get rid of some of us who have D’s behind our name.” She is a registered Democrat.
Several judges also spoke against the bill, prompting Burr to say: “In cleaning up these maps, it’s not always going to make a sitting judge happy.”
Burr said the districts weren’t drawn with racial considerations, promoting Rep. Grier Martin, a Democrat from Raleigh, to ask if they were drawn with partisan considerations.
“There’s some reason these lines are as squiggly as they are,” Martin said. “Was the motivation to gain partisan advantage or is partisan advantage a pure accident?”
Burr said the intent was to give both parties a level playing field.
North Carolina’s district courts handle traffic cases, misdemeanors and many hearings on custody, divorce cases and other family matters.
When the state’s district courts were set up almost 50 years ago, they were established so voters could elect the judges who handle the cases where the public interacts with the court.
Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said she questioned whether attempts to divide District Court judicial races into districts in Wake and Mecklenburg counties went against such policy.
As it is, most District Court judges are elected countywide.
Earls, whose organization represented challengers in lawsuits against 2011 redistricting plans for the state’s legislative and congressional districts, voiced similar concerns. Courts in those cases, she said, declared plans unconstitutional that included many of the same lines that the latest maps propose for judicial districts in Cumberland and Guilford counties.
Earls said the maps appear in some cases to shift resources from predominantly black counties to predominantly white, rural counties.
Gov. Roy Cooper, asked about the new maps at a news conference Monday morning, said he was still reviewing them but added, “This is an attempt to threaten the judiciary and rig the judiciary in their favor.”
The new maps are the latest item on the GOP checklist to change the judiciary in North Carolina.
Earlier this year the General Assembly added party affiliation to Superior Court and District Court elections – overriding a veto by Cooper. A Democratic lawmaker warned Republicans at the time that the change would make it more difficult in urban counties to elect judges who are registered Republicans because those areas are more liberal.
The General Assembly also decreased the size of the state Court of Appeals to 12 members from the 15 who currently make up the bench, a move described by critics as an attempt to keep the Democratic governor from being able to replace judges who reach the mandatory retirement age of 72. The lawmakers said the move was meant to address a lower workload, but appellate judges disputed the numbers cited.
The budget approved last week, which Cooper said he will veto, reduces funds for emergency judges and limits when they can be called in to help with the judicial workload and who can be on the list for those tasks. The budget also gives General Assembly leaders authority over the state’s use of private attorneys in court battles.
Last year, the courts found an attempt to change how sitting state Supreme Court justices stood for re-election to be a violation of the state Constituton..