Statewide judicial redistricting not likely this year, GOP lawmaker says

N&O file photo

North Carolina lawmakers have backed off a statewide plan to overhaul how judges get to the bench.

But in a committee meeting Friday afternoon, House members pushed ahead with changes to judicial election districts in Wake and 11 other counties, acknowledging that they were proceeding piecemeal because the state Senate was not fully on board with a statewide overhaul.

"I do not believe we will see a statewide bill," Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, said.

The House maps change how Wake District Court judges are elected. Currently they run in countywide elections. The House maps divide the county into six districts and over the next two years add two more district court judges, bringing the total to 21. The election districts for Superior Court would not be changed by the bill.

The new maps do not call for breaking up districts for Orange and Chatham counties, which have shared judges and prosecutors for years. Though such a plan was in one of the proposals, there was much opposition from people who work in the courts there.

The changes were put forward two days after the Senate voted along party lines to create eight Superior Court districts in Mecklenburg County, five more than are there now. The Senate plan also changes how Mecklenburg District Court judges are elected by having them run in districts that mirror those created for the Superior Court seats instead of running countywide.

Backers of the proposals have said they pushed the plan this year after hearing from legal analysts that current Mecklenburg districts were vulnerable to constitutional challenges similar to one that forced the drawing of new Wake County election lines in 2009.

One of the driving factors was the unequal populations in some of the districts.

Republicans have characterized their map proposals as changes geared toward fixing piecemeal judicial redistricting over the past five decades. Some have talked about trying to bring a diversity of judicial philosophies to the bench, too.

Their changes come in an election year when all judicial elections are partisan — from the district courts, where traffic tickets, child custody matters and misdemeanor crimes are heard, to the state Supreme Court.

Lawmakers have spent much of the past year considering proposals that would change how judges get to the bench in North Carolina, including new election districts and the possibility of abandoning the election of judges altogether.

The debate comes at a time when one state Supreme Court seat, the seat held by Barbara Jackson, a Republican, will be on the ballot in November for the seven-member bench on which Democrats hold a 4-3 majority.

Rep. Justin Burr, the Stanly County Republican who first rolled out a plan for statewide redistricting last summer on Twitter, put forward a second proposal that makes changes to counties in the western part of the state and Burr's home county.

"Rather than the big bite of the apple we've been pushing for, this takes some smaller steps," Burr said.

Burr spent much of the past year traveling across the state pitching his plan to local judges, but few came out to meetings in Raleigh to support such changes. Many called for a slow-down of the process and bringing more voices into the discussion.

Meanwhile, the Senate and the House were having difficulty finding common ground.

Senate leaders floated the possibility of abandoning the election of judges for an appointment system that would give lawmakers a prominent role in who presides in the courtrooms where some of their laws are tested.

Lewis said Friday he did not think there would be a proposed amendment to the state Constitution, which would be necessary to abandon the election of judges.

State senators are set to take up the judicial redistricting proposals in a meeting Monday afternoon.