Local officials voice opposition to judiciary overhaul as issue resurfaces at General Assembly

By: - February 7, 2018 2:16 pm

As lawmakers prepare to vote later this week on measures that are a secret to the rest of North Carolina, there is fear in some circles judicial reform could be put back on the table.

House, Senate and joint committees have been talking about judicial redistricting and judicial selection for months without agreement between the two chambers. In that time, they’ve heard from hundreds of voters, court officials and stakeholders who oppose their proposed changes.

Now, county boards of commissioners and city councils across the state — a couple in rural, conservative counties — are considering and passing resolutions to put their opposition in writing, and not at the behest of advocacy groups.

“We’ve worked long and hard to make this a conservative county, and when it all boils down to it, we should have the right to elect our judges,” said Beaufort County Commissioner Gary Brinn, a Republican. “After all, we’re the ones who have to go before them.”

The Beaufort County Board of Commissioners is made up of seven members — five Republicans and two Democrats. The resolution Brinn spoke of was passed unanimously.

It “opposes any amendment to the North Carolina Constitution that would change the right of the people of North Carolina to elect their judges, which insures an independent judiciary, as now provided in the State’s Constitution.”

Brinn said that several commissioners, including him, received many calls from members of the public opposing judicial appointments.

“Someone in Raleigh doesn’t know Beaufort County the way we do,” Brinn said.

The resolution, like others that have been passed, also states that the document will be sent to the local legislative delegation and to all of the state’s 100 county boards of commissioners.

“We’re hoping the majority of counties will see our position,” said Beaufort County Commissioner Rob Buzzeo, who is also a Republican.

He said the Board voted for the resolution because it did not want to see a judicial selection change made because of the political atmosphere.

“Whether it’s the Democrats or the Republicans that are in charge, we’d rather see the voters continue to make that decision,” he added.

There have been two main judicial reform proposals that lawmakers have discussed over the past several months — one a “merit selection” plan proposed and supported by GOP members of the Senate; the other is a judicial redistricting plan, House Bill 717, created by Rep. Justin Burr (R-Stanly, Montgomery), which would change the way voters elect judges and prosecutors in the state.

The resolutions that have been passed thus far oppose either one or the other proposal or both. In addition to Beaufort County, Policy Watch has obtained resolutions from Rocky Mount, Nash and Davidson counties.

The Davidson County board of Commissioners took its resolution a step further by including a statement in opposition to merit selection and another calling on lawmakers restore recently canceled judicial primaries.

“We looked at the changes that were happening,” said Davidson County Commissioner Fred McClure of what brought about the resolution. “We believe, I think, regardless of who’s in power up there that the judges deserve to be elected by the people and not appointed by the party in power.”

He added that the Board would not have opted to send the resolution to lawmakers if they didn’t hope they would read it.

The Nash County Board of Commissioners and Rocky Mount City Council resolutions oppose Burr’s judicial redistricting plan, which would separate Nash County from the 7th Judicial District and place it with Franklin, Granville and Person counties.

“Splitting the 7th Judicial District of Nash, Edgecombe and Wilson counties will create a new, approximately 100-mile long, ‘snake like,’ disjointed district with very little in common,” the document states. “Splitting the 7th Judicial District would result in undue burden on law enforcement, citizens and local and state taxpayers in the Edgecombe, Nash and Wilson County areas.…”

The resolutions then list eight ways the redistricting plan is burdensome, which includes increased caseload issues, increased court costs, disruption to juvenile court cases and the guardian ad litem program.

The document “urgently requests support” from lawmakers to keep the 7th Judicial District intact.

Nash County Board of Commissioner members were asked via email how the resolution came about and why they decided on it, but only the board’s clerk responded.

“The resolution is self-explanatory as to why it was passed by the Nash County Board of Commissioners,” said Janice Evans.

Beaufort County Vice Chairman Jerry Langley said he was behind presenting the resolution to his colleagues. He is one of the two Democrats on the Board and said he expected pushback but didn’t get it.

“There was no discussion, no debate, it just flew through,” he said. “That should tell the folks in Raleigh something.”

Langley said he plans to file Monday to run for a House seat in this year’s elections because of the decisions currently being made in Raleigh. Issues that have inspired him to run for higher office include changes to the judiciary, gerrymandering and litigation over the State Board of Elections.

“There has to be some sitting down at the table,” he said. “There are a lot of problems in Raleigh. It’s become a place of politics not about the people.”

It hasn’t been made clear what lawmakers will do with regard to judicial reform.

Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), a co-chair of the joint House and Senate Joint Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting, said about two weeks ago that the two chambers weren’t yet seeing eye-to-eye on which proposal was best for the state.

It’s clear GOP House members prefer judicial redistricting over merit selection, but the latter isn’t dead yet. The conservative Federalist Society’s Triangle Lawyers Association is hosting a discussion next week on judicial selection – state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin, a proponent of merit selection, is moderating.

Legislative leaders have told members to expect votes Thursday and Friday, but it’s unknown what lawmakers will actually be voting on.

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