State Politics

Judges to NC lawmakers: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t try and fix us.’

This judicial redistricting proposal is on the agenda when the NC legislature convenes Oct. 4, 2017.
This judicial redistricting proposal is on the agenda when the NC legislature convenes Oct. 4, 2017. N&O file photo

Judges who work in the court system and see the tangle of child custody cases, divorces, low-level crimes and complicated murder cases issued a common refrain on Friday as a 30-member Courts Commission reviewed a plan to overhaul election districts for judges and district attorneys across North Carolina.

“If it ain’t broke, please don’t come and try and fix us,” Susan Dotson-Smith, a District Court judge in Buncombe County, said.

“Essentially, the message is this: What is the rush?” Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gale M. Adams said, relaying a message from the president of the North Carolina Conference of Superior Court Judges. “Why can’t the legislators simply take time to more fully and thoroughly study the issue about judicial redistricting? This is a critical issue that affects a large number of people, the citizens of our state, and so what is the rush? Why can’t we have a nonpartisan, impartial commission and study the impact that it has?”

The Courts Commission was established by state law in the 1960s to evaluate proposed changes to the court system and advise the General Assembly on such issues. Made up of members from all branches of government as well as from the public, the commission has no independent authority of its own.

In 2013, Rep. Justin Burr, the bail bondsman from Stanly County behind the judicial redistricting proposal, joined with several other legislators in pushing a bill that would have sent the Courts Commission to its demise and turned its duties over to a legislative committee. Burr’s bill failed.

The commission, largely dormant for much of the past decade, came together on Friday with a renewed energy and mission as major changes are being proposed to the courts that provide checks on the lawmakers.

Rep. Sarah Stevens, a Republican from Mount Airy, a lawyer and member of the House judicial redistricting committee that voted overwhelmingly for Burr’s maps on Wednesday, is the head of the Courts Commission. She was tapped to lead it nearly three years ago when Republicans controlled both legislative chambers and the executive office.

Critics of the proposed changes to the legislative districts argue the plan is an attempt to give Republicans more power in the courts that have been a roadblock on key provisions of the Republican legislative agenda.

The lawmakers decided earlier this year to make all judicial races partisan — from the state Supreme Court to the district courts, which handle traffic cases, child custody issues, divorces and low-level crimes. In the months since, lawmakers have said, Republican judges in large urban areas that often vote for Democrats were worried about having to run for office with partisan labels.

Several months later, Burr revealed new judicial district maps on Twitter. They divide many of the larger urban areas such as Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Forsyth and Buncombe counties into districts where judicial candidates no longer will run in countywide races.

Why so much travel?

Regan Miller, the chief district court judge in Mecklenburg County, urged the commission to recommend to the lawmakers to slow down on judicial redistricting and get more information from the judges, clerks, district attorneys and others in the affected districts before making the first major overhaul to the system in more than 60 years.

Responding to similar requests on Wednesday, Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, said: “If we keep saying, ‘Now’s not the right time to go,’ we’ll just never go.”

Burr and others who support his maps have said they were prompted by piecemeal changes to districts made over the years that gave some voters in urban areas more power than others. The maps that are to be taken up by the state House of Representatives on Oct. 4, advocates of the changes say, shift more power for choosing judges to rural voters, who often support Republicans.

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“I know that we’re being split for partisan purposes to isolate the voters,” Miller told Burr, who attended the Courts Commission meeting. “We have a diverse bench that we are proud of.”

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, Durham Judges Jim Hill and Michael J. O’Foghludha and Orange County District Judge Joe Buckner all questioned changes in their districts. They questioned the numbers showing how many cases are handled by each jurisdiction that the state Administrative Office of the Courts provided to Burr and legislative staff as they developed districts and divisions. They questioned the distances that some Superior Court judges might have to travel.

In North Carolina, the state Constitution calls for traveling judges in the superior courts. The idea was that areas that might be otherwise underserved would have access to judges who could hear civil and criminal disputes.

Burr’s maps would cut the number of judicial divisions from eight to five and put some judges in the position of having to travel more and farther outside their home county — distances that might necessitate overnight stays.

Burr, a Republican, says he thinks the criticism overstates how much travel will be involved, but he also said that if people don’t want to make that commitment they might want to rethink their campaign.

“If you don’t feel comfortable that you can travel and do your job, you shouldn’t run for office,” Burr said.

Will bench lose women and diversity?

Adams, the Cumberland County judge, took up the issue of the negative impact on judges juggling a balance between work and family.

“I think that the issue becomes this: It’s not so much whether or not you have a choice, it’s a matter of limiting the choice of women who choose to seek a Superior Court position,” said Adams, a mother of five who spoke about her experience covering 13 counties. “And so I think that it is a factor that should be considered.”

“Diversity is important; it is important to have diversity on the bench,” Adams, an African-American judge, said. “The lines that are drawn at this point limit the amount of diversity. And some may say, ‘Eh, that’s not important,’ but there is a reason why there are a number of voices in this room. If it was only important to hear from just a few people, well then, why have so many people who you’re seeking input from here in this room on the commission?”

After a meeting that lasted more than four hours, the commission voted 9-5 to urge the House to postpone a vote on the judicial redistricting plan until next year.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1