Leaders decry GOP judicial redistricting legislation

Bob Hall

Leaders decry GOP judicial redistricting legislation
October 19
05:01 2017

North Carolina Republicans say the state’s judicial districts have not been fine- tuned in 60 years, and as a result, some districts have too many judges, while others have too few. It’s time to correct that imbalance so that all North Carolinians are treated “fairly and equitably,” Republicans say.

“This gets them back closer to similar size districts,” says Rep. Donny Lambeth (R-Forsyth).

Indeed, there is general consensus that new district lines need to be redrawn, and the process of judges being elected or appointed deserves a long overdue look, with judicial input.

But what state House Republican lawmakers have done per judicial redistricting in their third Special Session of the year goes beyond any “fine tuning,” Democrats, N.C. NAACP leadership and others insist. They see a plot by the GOP to systematically take over North Carolina’s court system so that more Republican judges and prosecutors can be elected, and Republicans ultimately have a better chance of winning cases involving legislative policy disputes, like voting rights and redistricting.

“They’re bullies …,” declared Bob Hall, executive director of the nonpartisan Democracy NC, a Durham-based issues-advocacy group that’s been monitoring what GOP legislative leaders have been up to.

“They’ve gone after the executive branch, now they’re going after the courts, very deliberately and systematically.”

It has been a burr in the side of Republican legislative leaders that they’ve spent over $10 million in litigation fees over the past decade, only to have their laws either overturned as being unconstitutional, or their power grabs struck down by both state and federal courts.

A scheme to maintain a Republican majority on the state Supreme Court failed miserably last year, resulting in the election of Democrat Judge Mike Morgan, an African-American, and with that, a Democratic majority.

Republicans still hold the majority on the N.C. Court of Appeals, but that isn’t enough. The GOP majority in both the House and Senate have put party labels back on local judicial races, and there are plans to add more seats to the state Supreme Court so that Republicans can return to the majority there.

With a new judicial redistricting plan that has even members of the judiciary up in arms, the GOP has laid out a scheme that many district and superior court judges, a good number of whom are both Democrat and African-American, in counties like Durham, Forsyth, Mecklenburg and Guilford, will be “double-bunked” in newly drawn districts, meaning they will have to face one another in elections in order to remain in office.

“They’re going to eliminate a lot of African-American judges, “ Hall with Democracy NC insists. He added that a lot of the programs that counties shared that were alternatives for incarceration for many people would now be ended where there are large urban centers.

“It’s a conspiracy on a number of levels,” Hall continued. “They’re trying to find a way to elect more Republican judges; a conspiracy against African-American judges who have gained more stature and seniority; and it’s a conspiracy against the people who are served by the courts.”

Observers say it is no accident that the GOP judicial redistricting plan was concocted by Rep. Justin Burr (R-Stanly), a bail bondsman who stands to benefit from changing the court system. Burr, however, counters that the judicial redistricting is needed.

“This thing is a mess,” opined Sen. Paul Lowe (D-Forsyth), one of the counties where black judges would be affected by the judicial redistricting if it passes when the legislature reconvenes next January.

“It sounds like the real goal is to shift things in the urban areas, pretty much guaranteeing that the number of African-American judges will go down dramatically – whether they’re intending that or not.”

The hue and cry from Democratic and N.C. NAACP leaders is almost deafening.

“Based on what we have seen produced from the House plan on judicial redistricting, I am gravely concerned over the rejection of insight and input from the courts,” Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue (D-Wake) said Monday, noting that members of the state’s judiciary had no say in the Republican judicial redistricting maps.

“It is critical for the health of the judicial system to support and encourage diversity on the bench and to promote the peoples’ right to a fair and speedy trial,” Sen. Blue continued.  “The plan pushed forward in the House erodes that diversity and obstructs justice.”

Published reports indicate that Republicans in the state Senate have a different idea on how judges should be elevated to the bench, suggesting that they prefer the merit selection of judges by lawmakers, thus eliminating judicial elections. To give themselves more time to flesh out the details, the Senate passed SB656 last week, cancelling the 2018 judicial primaries. Gov. Cooper vetoed the law, but the GOP House and Senate overrode his veto with their supermajorities this week before going home.

“While some of the provisions of S.B. 656 were good steps toward reforming our judicial elections, the elimination of primaries is an unnecessary and chaotic step that will only hurt the public’s ability to choose justices,” said Rep. Cecil Brockman (D-Guilford).

Attorney Irving Joyner, chair of the N.C. NAACP Legal Redress Committee, was scathing in his assessment of what the Republicans are up to.

“Present efforts by the N.C. General Assembly to reconfigure judicial districts are, once again, designed by right wing ideologues to destroy democracy in North Carolina and further diminish the participation of African-Americans, racial minorities and women in the State’s justice process,” Joyner, who is also a professor at North Carolina Central University’s School of Law in Durham, continued. “The redistricting proposals have the goal of stacking the District and Superior Courts with people who are loyal to an ultra conservative political point of view and who will undermine constitutional protections that all people are supposed to enjoy in North Carolina.”

“As proposed, the projected district lines will eliminate the judicial position in which African Americans have been elected and deliberately create districts which will force some African American judges to run against each other,” Joyner, who also called the Senate’s merit selection plan, “… just a further attempt to strip citizens of the right to vote and place the power to elect Judges in the hands of a few right wing legislators…,” said.

“What the General Assembly seeks to do now in the judicial realm is exactly what they unsuccessfully sought to do with legislative and congressional districts. The N.C. NAACP is preparing to challenge these unconstitutional districts in federal court as soon as they are enacted,” Professor Joyner concluded.

The newly elected president of the N.C. NAACP, Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman of Greensboro, echoed Joyner’s concern.

“No matter which type of judicial selection process is used – appointment, merit selection, or election – a judiciary truly ‘Of, By, and For the People…’ must be selected by a process as blind as possible to race, gender, or political affiliation. We advocate for a process that – in intent and effect – removes judicial selection from the control of anyone who would use the justice system for political advantage or racial discrimination,” Rev. Spearman added.

“[Republicans are saying…] ‘We’ll make sure we remain in power,’ Sen. Paul Lowe Jr. remarked, feigning what the ultimate GOP goal is. “And they want to make sure that they’ve got the right folks in place.”

Sen. Lowe added that people must take what’s happening seriously, and commit themselves to voting for a change in 2018.

House Republicans went home Tuesday after voting Monday night to override Gov. Cooper’s veto of SB 626, which canceled the 2018 judicial primaries. The Senate also ended its Special Session this week, scheduled to return Jan. 10 to decide ballot amendments on voter ID, and the appointment of judges by lawmakers for 2018.

“It’s a serious crime against democracy,” Bob Hall of Democracy NC insists. “It’s a serious crime that [Republicans] are committing.”

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Cash Michaels

Cash Michaels

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