Familiar issues likely to highlight NC courts news in 2018

Familiar issues likely to highlight NC courts news in 2018

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New Year, new…wait a minute. It’s looking more and more like this year’s North Carolina General Assembly motto will be “New Year, same me.”

It’s fully expected that lawmakers will continue building on many of the same themes to which North Carolinians were witness in 2017, starting with the legislature’s continued vise grip on the courts. Though it’s possible their fingers may be pried open by several court decisions expected in the first half of the year, lawmakers’ plans to remake the state judiciary remain on the front burner,

Other similar themes expected to rear up in 2018 include burdening the poor and fighting to keep racial gerrymandering on the table. For more detailed explanations, see below:

‘Assault’ on the courts

Will lawmakers continue to meddle in the courts this year? It shouldn’t be a mystery much longer.

When the legislature reconvenes next week, lawmakers are expected to take up the matter of how judges are selected, whether in the form of proposals for new judicial district maps, a new “merit selection” system or a constitutional amendment that would cut judges’ terms to two years and force them all to run for reelection at the end of this year.

Meanwhile, the Senate Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting met three times in November and December to review different forms of judicial redistricting. GOP members recently introduced their own maps to correct constitutional flaws in the House maps, which passed that body in October. Democratic members will make presentations at a fourth meeting today about their vision for judicial reform.

If lawmakers ultimately pass a constitutional amendment, the public will vote in a referendum on the matter.

Court fines and fees

The driver’s licenses of more than 436,000 North Carolinians are currently suspended because they owe the courts money. That number will likely increase, since Republican lawmakers passed a provision in the budget bill last year making it more difficult for judges to waive fees for poor defendants.

The law now requires judges to give all government entities that might conceivably benefit from the proceeds 15 days’ notice before waiving any fines or fees. The result is that the Administrative Office of the Courts must mail 615 letters every month to explain to interested parties that fees could be waived at any criminal hearing on the calendar.

AOC spokeswoman Sharon Gladwell said the office has received a few questions from local government entities stemming from the letters.

“The most common question was ‘Why am I receiving this notice?’” Gladwell wrote in an email.

As to whether any local government entities have shown up to any of the hearings, she said the AOC does not have any record of that information. The AOC also did not immediately have information about any court fines or fees that may have been waived in December, when the provision went into effect.

Who will enforce the provision? Will it prevent judges from actually waiving fines or fees? At this point, the answers to both of these questions remain elusive.

Gerrymandering

As in years past, 2018 will be a big year for gerrymandering – political and racial.

There are three court decisions expected this year in cases involving both types of gerrymandering.

In North Carolina v. Covington, the court could decide as early as this week if a special master’s proposed districts to correct racial gerrymandering will stand. A hearing is scheduled for Friday in Greensboro over the master’s 69-page report, which proposes a redrawing of Senate districts in Cumberland, Hoke and Guilford counties and House districts in Sampson, Wayne, Mecklenburg, Guilford and Wake counties.

At least two GOP lawmakers have said they will fight the special master all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Speaking of the land’s highest court, justices are expected to decide a partisan gerrymandering case out of Wisconsin, which could change the redistricting process nationwide. The case was argued in October.

Two North Carolina partisan gerrymandering cases that were argued at the federal level last year could be decided any time.

Judicial elections

North Carolina voters could see a record number of candidates seeking election as judges this year after lawmakers acted last year to eliminate May judicial primaries.

A review of the judicial offices with expiring terms shows that there will be roughly 150 judicial races: one Supreme Court, three Court of Appeals, more than 30 for Superior Court and more than 115 for District Court.

There have been at least three instances in the past 16 years in which judicial primaries were not used:

  • 2004, when seven candidates ran for a state Supreme Court seat;
  • 2010, when 12 candidates ran for a state Court of Appeals seat;
  • and 2014, when 19 candidates ran for a Supreme Court seat – each resulting in a winner elected with less than 24 percent of the vote.

The state’s Democratic Party has filed a federal lawsuit over the canceled primaries, and a court could decide soon about whether to halt the planned cancellation.