State Politics

How much power should rural voters have in electing NC judges?

Judicial redistricting proposal was discussed in state House committee meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017 in Raleigh.
Judicial redistricting proposal was discussed in state House committee meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017 in Raleigh. N&O file photo

New maps that overhaul the election districts from which North Carolinians elect their judges are headed for further review by the state House of Representatives next week after a vote that was mostly along party lines on Wednesday.

The Select Committee on Judicial Redistricting, composed of 21 Republicans and eight Democrats, spent much of the day discussing the first sweeping changes to districts used to elect the state’s Superior Court and District Court judges as well as district attorneys.

The proposed overhaul comes in a year that the Republican-led General Assembly made all judicial elections partisan — from the district courts, which handle traffic cases, custody matters, divorces and low-level crimes, to the state Supreme Court, which determines whether errors occurred at trial or in judicial interpretation of the law.

Republicans contend the maps give more power to rural voters to have a say in their judges.

The maps, as adopted, would make major changes in Wake, Durham, Orange, Mecklenburg, Guilford, Buncombe and Cumberland counties — larger urban areas that typically support Democrats.

Wake, Durham, Orange, Chatham changes

Wake County residents no longer would vote on a countywide basis for district court judges. Instead, the county would be divided up into districts similar to the ones currently used to elect Superior Court judges, with the Republican-leaning district electing three District Court judges and the other more Democratic-leaning areas electing two judges from each district.

Durham County, which was represented on the committee by Marcia Morey, a Democrat and former District Court judge who has been critical of the process, would lose a Superior Court judge and District Court judge to rural areas.

The judicial district that used to be made up of Orange and Chatham counties would be broken up. Orange County, which is home to the drug courts and other specialty programs available to Chatham residents through the two-county judicial district, would stand alone as a district. Chatham would be combined with Randolph County, a proposal opposed by all the current judges in the Orange-Chatham district.

“Severing this long-standing relationship between Chatham and Orange Counties and pairing Chatham and Randolph in a judicial district, while making Orange a stand-alone, would disrupt a fully functioning system and cause confusion and unnecessary complications to the administration of justice in all three counties,” reads a letter signed by two Superior Court judges, five District Court judges, the clerks of court, public defender and presidents of the bar for Chatham and Orange counties. “Residents of Orange and Chatham counties are more connected by work, commerce, and recreation with Chatham County than with Randolph. Because of the population disparity between the counties, the administration of justice in a new district will be influenced more by Randolph than by Chatham for years to come.”

The plans have drawn criticism from judges and lawyers’ associations at previous meetings. All the public speakers at the hearing on Wednesday roundly opposed the process, saying it was too rushed, and they questioned the motives behind the changes.

“I believe what we are seeing here today is an attempt at a coup d’état,” said Michael Eisenberg, a Raleigh resident. “This is an attempt to take over the final piece of the puzzle and to gerrymander the judiciary in favor of the Republicans.”

Elena Ceberio, a Raleigh resident, raised her voice at the podium as she pointed out the words on her T-shirt.

“It reads ‘annoy a conservative, use facts and logic.’ ” Ceberio said. “Here is fact: You work for us, not the other way around. We will not live in fear as is your intention. As for logic, if it’s not broken, why are we fixing it?”

Was race considered?

Rep. Joe John, a Wake County Democrat who spoke out against the plan to his fellow committee members, said he was not opposed to tweaking the district lines, but suggested a different group without partisan motives be selected to take up the task. He used racial statistics to highlight districts that could be challenged in court as racial gerrymanders.

In Cumberland County, all 11 precincts with 40 percent or more African-American voters are in one judicial district, John, a former judge pointed out. In Forsyth County, 18 of the 20 precincts with a high population of African-Americans are in one district.

John asked Rep. Justin Burr, a Stanly County Republican, a series of questions as if he were preparing a deposition for a lawsuit similar to the ones that led to federal judges finding that legislative and congressional districts drawn by the Republican-led legislature were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders that weakened the overall influence of black voters by packing them into a few districts.

“I did not take into account a race when redrawing the districts,” said Burr, who led the redistricting process.

Burr has rejected claims that the maps were drawn to give Republicans a better chance at winning judicial seats in a court system that has overturned key provisions of the Republican agenda in recent years. He insists that the changes, which were introduced to the public in a tweet by Burr in late June, are an attempt to correct nearly six decades of piecemeal tweaks to the bones of judicial maps drawn 62 years ago.

Burr often offers Mecklenburg County as an illustration of why the districts need changes, saying that one Superior Court district there has as many residents as the other two districts put together. “That’s a huge gap, a real imbalance and a real injustice to the people of that county, and I believe it needs to be fixed,” Burr said at the 5 1/2-hour meeting.

The lines proposed for electing District Court judges would pit two incumbents against each other, or double-bunk sitting judges, in 12 districts — Buncombe, Cumberland, Durham, Forsyth, Gaston, Granville, Guilford, Hoke/Moore, Mecklenburg, New Hanover, Northampton and Wake counties. Ten of the districts either have all or a majority of Democrats on their District Court benches.

Twenty-four districts proposed for electing District Court judges have no incumbents in them, and they are in areas that have leaned Republican in previous elections, according to voting data.

Nearly 40 percent of Superior Court judges who identify as Democrats would be double-bunked, according to the maps released earlier this week by Burr. By contrast, only 12 percent of judges who identify as Republicans would be pitted against an incumbent judge.

The maps make other changes, too, by dividing up some of the Democratic strongholds in urban areas into more districts used to elect Superior Court and District Court judges.

Wake County residents no longer would vote on a countywide basis for District Court judges. Instead, the county would be divided into districts similar to the ones currently used to elect Superior Court judges, with the Republican-leaning district electing three District Court judges and the other more Democratic-leaning areas electing two.

Fair and impartial? Partisan machine?

Rep. Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat who has experience in the courts through his work as a lawyer, questioned whether the District Court lines were drawn after the legislators changed all judicial elections to partisan earlier this year and then heard complaints from Republican judges who had won in nonpartisan races but complained of potential difficulties in getting elected in urban areas that often vote Democratic.

“Judges should be independent, and that’s a good thing,” Jackson said after the meeting.

“What we’ve done is we’ve made our fair and impartial judiciary totally into a partisan machine,” a disappointed Morey said after the meeting.

The General Assembly is scheduled to meet Oct. 4, and the maps approved by the committee Wednesday will be subject to review by another House committee and then, if adopted there, go before the full state House of Representatives.

A courts commission is set to discuss the proposal later this week.

Republicans on the committee described the process, which began in June, stalled through the summer months, then started again this month, as deliberative and transparent.

Democrats and judges, lawyers and others who work in the court system disputed that.

Slow down, the Republican lawmakers were told, and bring in the stakeholders.

“If we keep saying, ‘Now’s not the right time to go,’ we’ll just never go,” Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, said in responding to such a request on Wednesday.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1