Judicial maps move forward despite pleas to slow down from public, judicial stakeholders
With few favorable amendments, the maps in House Bill 717 will remake the structure of the state’s court system, with particularly dramatic changes to urban areas.
The superior and district court and prosecutorial maps were secretly drawn by Rep. Justin Burr (R-Stanly, Montgomery) and released on Twitter in June without notice to or consultation of judicial stakeholders. They were reviewed over about a month, tweaked once by Burr and once through the committee process and then passed in a 21-8 vote to be sent to the full House for consideration.
The committee that met Wednesday was made up of 19 Republicans and 10 Democrats, with only one of the minority party’s several amendments for changes in the maps passing. Rep. Michael Wray (D-Halifax, Northampton) and Rep. William D. Brisson (D-Bladen, Johnston, Sampson) voted with Republicans to pass Burr’s maps.
“It is long overdue for the General Assembly to update the framework of our judicial districts to reflect North Carolina’s changing needs and growth,” Burr said.
He told the committee that “disenfranchised voters” in certain Mecklenburg County districts inspired him to reform the state’s judiciary. He added that he considered available resources, population, geography and only recently caseload, but not race, in the mapmaking process.
The most recent version of the judicial maps, before amendments, were released just before midnight Monday.
The maps released by the legislature did not include information about which judges and district attorneys in which districts would be affected. NC Policy Watch released maps Tuesday containing that information.
Most of the counties in the district and superior court maps are whole districts but urban counties are split into multiple districts. Wake, Durham, Guilford, Forsyth and Buncombe counties would no longer vote county-wide in district court judicial elections.
There are 12 district court districts that double-bunk judges (pitting incumbents against each other in an election), 10 of which are majority Democrat. They include the following counties: Northampton, New Hanover, Cumberland, Hoke, Wake, Durham, Granville, Guilford, Gaston, Mecklenburg, Forsyth and Buncombe.
There are judicial vacancies in 24 district court districts, 13 of which are majority Republican. They include the following counties: Nash, Lenoir, Pender, Columbus, Robeson, Cumberland, Harnett, Wake, Durham, Alamance, Rockingham, Durham, Guilford, Surry, Forsyth, Davie, Mecklenburg, Iredell, Wilkes, Burke, Rutherford, Henderson, Buncombe, Stanly and Chatham.
In the superior court map, there are 9 districts with judges who are double-bunked, of which seven are majority Democrat. They include the following counties: Nash, New Hanover, Cumberland, Robeson, Union, Guilford, Rockingham, Orange and Buncombe.
There are 18 superior court districts with judicial vacancies — three are majority Republican and six don’t currently have any sitting judges. They include the following counties: Beaufort, Granville, Duplin, New Hanover, Bladen, Johnston, Cumberland, Moore, Stanley, Randolph, Guilford, Iredell, Wake, Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Gaston, Cleveland and Buncombe.
There are three counties in the prosecutorial districts that double-bunk district attorneys — one Democrat and one Republican in Hoke and Moore counties; two Republicans in Henderson, Transylvania and Polk counties; and two Republicans in Surry and Stokes counties.
Democratic legislators relayed concerns about double-bunking judges, noting that quality and experience would be at stake as a result. Several judges also relayed their own concerns about double-bunking.
Republican lawmakers repeatedly in both Wednesday’s committee meeting and over the past couple weeks have criticized judges for seeking incumbency protection despite voting for such criterion themselves during recent legislative redistricting.
Despite their criticisms, the committee voted Wednesday to change one precinct in one Mecklenburg County district to accommodate one Republican judge, Sean Patrick Smith.
Rep. Andy Dulin (R-Mecklenburg) presented the amendment, which moved Smith from a district where he would have been double-bunked with 15 other judges in a 12-judge district to a district in the same county with four vacancies.
A short time later, when Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham) spoke against an amendment that reduced judges in her home county, Dulin chastised her for “sticking up for her district.”
The amendment, which was introduced by Wray, was passed and in addition to reducing the judges in Durham County, adds one to Halifax County — a district with a population of 51,766 compared to Durham’s 306,212, according to 2016 Census data.
“This amendment is robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Morey argued.
House Minority Leader Darren Jackson also spoke against the amendment, noting that Durham needs more resources, not less. He currently practices law in Durham and Morey served as a chief district court judge there.
‘Final piece of the puzzle’
Every member of the public who spoke at Wednesday’s hearing, which included two retired judges, opposed Burr’s maps.
“This is an attempt to take over the final piece of the puzzle and to gerrymander the judiciary in favor of the Republicans,” said Michael Eisenberg, of Raleigh. “How can you look yourselves in the mirror at what you are doing to us? … I fear for the future of our state.”[Tweet “How can you look yourselves in the mirror at what you are doing to us? – Michael Eisenberg”]
Burr rarely looked up from the maps on his podium during public comment, even when addressed by name. At one point, he smiled, and Eisenberg told him “it’s not funny, sir.”
Nancy Gordon, a retired district court judge from Durham who is currently serving on the active emergency judge list, told lawmakers that judges are supposed to be politically neutral and “stacking the deck” does not support the Constitution or due process.
“I trust that as you all are in public service, we can agree that service is bigger than us individually,” she said. “It’s bigger than party affiliation; it’s bigger than personal ambition. It’s an allegiance to governing and working in the best interest of all citizens of our state.”
Gordon and retired judge Pat Devine from Orange and Chatham counties were the only judicial officials who turned out at the public hearing Wednesday, although the heads of district and superior court organizations spoke at a committee meeting last week.
Judges Athena Brooks and Joe Crosswhite, both registered Republicans, asked lawmakers last week to slow down the judicial redistricting process.
“Redistricting is a process that should be accomplished in a deliberate manner; a thorough process which includes all judicial and legal stakeholders with the ultimate goal of the fair and impartial administration of law and justice always at the forefront of the process,” Brooks said.
Crosswhite similarly urged House lawmakers to take “a measured approach, to do your research, to gather your facts, and to make a systematic, collaborative decision on what is going to be best for our court system.”
“We want to make sure this is a systematic and collaborative approach,” he added. We don’t want anything to happen that’s gonna cause this to be destabilized or to cause us to go back. I guess the bottom line of my message is: We don’t need to rush to make any changes. We have the time. We have the luxury. We have the experts on the ground.”
The State Bar and Bar Association, which represents attorneys in the state also echoed those judges sentiments last week.
‘Tearing’ Chatham from Orange
A number of North Carolinians and legislators spoke against a major change in Burr’s maps which would separate Chatham and Orange counties and pair the former with Randolph County.
Devine and Morey also presented a letter to lawmakers signed by all judicial stakeholders in Orange and Chatham counties asking them not split the two.
“The bill, if enacted into law, would terminate the cooperative judicial and prosecutorial relationship enjoyed for more than 40 years by the residents of Chatham and Orange counties,” the letter states. “The purpose of multi-county districts is to promote equity and economy in the administration of justice in the district and superior courts. Associated Chatham County with Randolph County does neither.”
Chatham and Orange counties share a juvenile justice office, community corrections office, guardian ad litem office and attorney services, the letter states. Separating the two counties and pairing Chatham with Randolph “would disrupt a fully-functioning system and cause confusion and unnecessary complications to the administration of justice in all three counties,” it adds.
Divine told lawmakers the bottom line is that HB717 as it’s written “is terribly unfair to the citizens of Chatham County.”
“The point is that you tear Chatham away from Orange County, Chatham County will experience a complete upheaval at every level of court services, not just in their judges,” she said.
Becca Zirken, an Orange County resident, asked lawmakers not to pass HB717.
“Rep. Burr, nothing about HB717 suggests good will or fairness or care for the people of this state,” she said. “Instead, this ill-conceived bill steamrolls us again. You’ve rushed this plan against the advice and will of the legal community and many judges who know the system inside and out.”
Jackson introduced an amendment to keep Orange and Chatham counties in the same district, leaving Randolph on its own, and it failed.
‘Open and transparent’
Rep. Joe John (D-Wake), a former state Court of Appeals judge, introduced an amendment to employ an independent judicial redistricting committee to complete the process that HB717 accomplishes.
“I sincerely believe this bill presents an opportunity to establish a regular, orderly, controlled, common-sense process for keeping up with changing conditions which may affect the composition of our judicial divisions, judicial district and prosecutorial districts,” he told his colleagues. “Because it is an independent commission, it has the benefit of engendering public confidence in its work.”
Burr called the proposal “insane” and it failed the committee.
Before the final discussion on HB717, Jackson asked for a roll call vote, indicating that the maps could end up in litigation.
Morey spoke against the bill, urging the committee to consider a more thoughtful approach.
Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), who chaired the recent legislative redistricting committee, spoke in favor of the bill, noting that the process had been “open and transparent.”
“If we keep saying now is not the right time to go, we just won’t ever go,” he said of requests to slow down the process.
HB717 is expected to be taken up by the Courts Commission Friday and the full House chamber next week.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.