Republican lawmakers went all in on the state’s judiciary – they worked hard to pass laws that cater to their needs and they worked even harder to make sure judges think twice before overturning those laws.
They started slow with proposals to divide judicial districts and threats to eradicate the Governor’s appointment powers, but built momentum as the year went on by voting to shrink the Court of Appeals and unveiling plans to change the way every judge and prosecutor in the state would be elected.
They also introduced a constitutional amendment that would cut all judges’ and justices’ terms to two years and force them all to run for re-election next year. It’s a move that many, including former GOP Supreme Court justices, viewed as intimidation.
There were 419 bills filed at the legislature by July that affected the judiciary in some way, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts. This year’s extra-long session and subsequent legislative meetings brought clarity to the GOP’s bigger picture to remake the court system.
Here are some of the biggest stories of the year:
Merit or maps?
Rep. Justin Burr (R-Montgomery, Stanly) surprised everyone at the end of the long session this year with redrawn maps of all the districts in which judges and prosecutors run for election. It wasn’t long after that news of an alternate proposal was unveiled in the Senate. That chamber prefers a form of merit selection, which would eliminate judicial election altogether. It’s not clear which plan, if any, will move forward but there has been concern that both chambers will strike a deal, guaranteeing a GOP win at the end of the day. Read some of the stories here:
- Politically-driven judicial redistricting halted…for the time being
- Merit or maps? Judges’ futures could come down to clashing legislative proposals
- Updated maps: Where judges land in judicial redistricting bill to be considered by Senate
Court empowers a special master
The state’s ongoing racial gerrymandering saga continued this year and ended with a twist. A federal three-judge panel hired a third party to get involved in the redrawing of legislative districts after an unsatisfactory process put on by GOP lawmakers. Read all about it here:
- U.S. Supreme Court agrees NC legislative districts were illegally gerrymandered based on race
- North Carolina voters give lawmakers tongue-lashing over new proposed legislative maps
- Federal court appoints special master to decide if NC racial gerrymanders remain unconstitutional
Partisan gerrymandering at SCOTUS
Policy Watch brought first-hand coverage this year of a U.S. Supreme Court case that has the potential to change redistricting processes across the nation. Gill v. Whitford is a challenge to Wisconsin’s 2011 state legislative redistricting map drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature. North Carolina has had two similar partisan gerrymandering challenges in federal court, so the outcome is one that many are waiting for with bated breath. Read our reports here:
- Will partisan gerrymandering survive? Our report from yesterday’s argument at the U.S. Supreme Court
- Searching for the ‘Holy Grail’ in partisan gerrymandering standards: An update from the federal trial in Greensboro
Court of Appeals changes
There was a lot of drama this year involving the state Court of Appeals. It technically started just before the New Year in a special session, in which lawmakers voted to change an appeals process. It continued on in the long session, with most of the news surrounding a plan to cut three judges from the court. The plan passed but was hindered by a rogue judge, a registered Republican, who retired early to prevent the law from being implemented right away. Read about it here:
- An in-depth look at N.C. lawmakers’ attempt to shrink the Court of Appeals
- Full speed ahead: GOP lawmakers plow ahead with plans to remake the state court system
- Republican judge on protesting bill reducing Court of Appeals: ‘There weren’t any other options’
- Bonus: Linda McGee speaks out: An interview with the Chief Judge of the NC Court of Appeals
“Raise the age”
In a more positive turn of events this year, lawmakers finally voted to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction…in December 2019. There was a lot of bipartisan momentum early in the year to pass “raise the age” legislation as recommended by independent, multidisciplinary commission that was empaneled by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin. The measure was ultimately passed in the budget bill and strayed from the recommendation in that not all felonies are included. Read more here: