Policy Watch exclusive: Double-bunked judges speak out on judicial redistricting plans

Policy Watch exclusive: Double-bunked judges speak out on judicial redistricting plans

Rep. Justin Burr (center) is pushing a judicial redistricting plan that would double-bunk many of the state’s most experienced judges.

More than 100 judges with thousands of years of combined experience could be wiped from the North Carolina bench by a bail bond agent who has served less than a decade in the General Assembly, and no one really knows why.

Many judges learned of their potential unemployment on Twitter last summer when Rep. Justin Burr (a private bail bond agent by profession) unveiled his surprise judicial redistricting plan. They’ve been trying to figure out what’s going on ever since.

“It’s stressful because it’s created this cloud of anxiety since June about what are they going to do next. Do I have to move? What do I have to do?” said District Court Judge Robin Wicks Robinson, who serves New Hanover and Pender counties. “There is a powerlessness feeling and feeling of anxiety that overwhelms.”

District Court Judge Robin Wicks Robinson

She and four of her nine colleagues have been double-bunked (which for the purposes of this article means there are a smaller number of seats in a judicial district than there are current sitting judges) in almost every one of the nine judicial maps that have been introduced in the Republican-led legislature.

Why? If you ask Burr, he will repeat this mantra: “We’re cleaning up some lines from the past 50 years.” He may also throw in a line about population inequities in Mecklenburg County. But ask him for specifics, and you’ll likely hear nothing but crickets.

He refused to respond to specific questions from Policy Watch for this article after seven judges, including Robinson, spoke exclusively with this reporter about how his plans will impact both their jobs and the communities they serve.

“We’ve asked what was broke that needed to be fixed here – [this plan] seemed to impugn us; what is it about what we’re doing that needs reforming at this point?” Robinson asked. “I honestly don’t ever recall hearing any truly substantive response to that question.”

She’s not alone. Superior Court judges Carl Fox and Allen Baddour have also been double-bunked in most, if not all, of the judicial redistricting maps considered by the legislature without explanation.

They both serve Orange and Chatham counties, which would be split up in the new maps. The two counties have enjoyed a cooperative judicial and prosecutorial relationship for decades that benefits the residents in both areas.

“No one has described to me why Orange and Chatham need to be split,” Baddour said. “I would love to have that discussion, and if at the end of that discussion, the only solution is to break them up, then I think the evidence would point us there.”

Orange County in the proposed judicial redistricting maps would stand alone and Chatham County would be paired with Randolph County.

Baddour said he has a good understanding of what is lost by splitting the two counties up but not a good understanding of what would be gained.

He and Fox both spoke about the high-level at which Orange and Chatham function together. They fear that Chatham residents would be lost in the split-up because Randolph is roughly the same size as Orange.

Orange County at the moment does a nice job of respecting Chatham with a balance of leadership and an understanding of what one community means to the other, Baddour said. He has lived in both counties – his home now is in Orange but his office is in Chatham.

“With 50 or so years of interaction, everybody understands each other – the bar understands the bench and the bench understands the bar,” he said.

That understanding has been mostly undiscussed, he added, but it matters. It helps the bar manage their clients, their expectations, the results they can get and how to settle cases.

Baddour and Fox agreed that any impact from judicial redistricting would likely be felt the hardest by Chatham County residents.

Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour presided over a case last week involving the McCrory Legal Defense Fund and voters who claimed to be defamed in the last gubernatorial election. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

“I’ll be honest, I can’t say that they would be forever impacted and they couldn’t overcome, but I’m not clear on how that impact is addressed,” said Baddour, who has been on the bench for 12 years.

None of the practical impacts to the judicial system have been discussed by any legislator up to this point – i.e. where the money for redistricting would come from, how joint services and funding would be split up, what would happen to pending cases, how specialty courts (family courts, mental health courts, drug courts, etc.) would continue functioning without specialty judges if they lose their seats, and other important considerations.

“One of my biggest concerns is, 2020 is a huge year for the state judiciary because that’s when the juvenile age changes to 18,” said District Court Judge Amber Davis, who serves the first judicial district, which encompasses Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Pasquotank and Perquimans counties. “We really have no idea what that’s going to look like and what impact or effect that’s going to have on the system itself and on the changes we’re going to have to make.”

It’s a change that judges currently sitting on the bench are already preparing for – if they lose their jobs, it will be the juveniles in the system who are impacted.

“We have a lot of work to do to be ready for 2020,” Davis said.

District Court Judge Carrie Vickery echoed Davis’ concerns. She is in her first term on the bench in Forsyth County.

“Juveniles are the most vulnerable in our community,” she said. “They really benefit from a judge who is certified and who is experienced in those types of cases.”

Another impact likely to be felt by residents across the state is less access to the court system. Judicial divisions in the new maps would be cut from eight to five, which means some judges – and some of the people they serve – would be required to travel longer distances to court.

Travel is already an issue in some current judicial districts. Davis says that people don’t show up to court in her district because they can’t afford to or don’t have the means to drive several counties over.

“If we have to schedule a juvenile hearing in Dare County for a child that’s in Vance County from a low-income family, there’s no way that family can even get there,” she said. “We’re in eastern North Carolina; they don’t have the resources.”

Her colleague, District Court Judge Eula Reid agreed and said the first judicial district has been working for years to improve access to the courts for the communities they serve – all that could be undone if the new judicial maps are enacted.

“I think we’re making strides each and every day,” she said. “The bottom line is access to the courts, and I think we do a really good job in the first district for the people who live in our communities to have that access. No one knows what that change is going to do – I think it’s going to be a huge impact.”

District court Judges Eula Reid (left) and Amber Davis (right) chatted outside the UNC School of Government at a training event earlier this month. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Reid also talked about the proposed maps’ impact to diversity across the state. She is the only Black judge on the bench in the first judicial district, and the only Black female judge, and she faces losing her job this year if the legislature approves any of the current A, B or C versions of the maps.

Race, she said, has nothing to do with her ability to serve on the bench, but it does have everything to do with her efforts to serve as a role model for young people in her communities. She makes sure to take time to speak to schools and at community events.

“Because people are really, in this day and time, sometimes shocked to see a Black female judge on the bench – I’m not saying there’s anything unusual about it in the real world, but in the world that we live, a lot of people are just amazed that it can happen,” Reid said. “I take that seriously.”

Options A, B and C of the proposed judicial maps double-bunk 30 to 32 percent of African-American or Black district court judges. Options B and C double-bunk 39 percent of African-American or Black superior court judges.

Fox, who is a Black Superior Court judge, spoke about the disservice the loss of diversity on the bench would do to North Carolinians.

“I think of it as this simple: the percentage of African-Americans in court, regrettably, is probably well over 50 percent, and certainly the numbers in prison represent that, and it’s difficult to think that you’re going to get any measure of justice when you walk in the courtroom and you never see a face like yours on the bench or in any position of power in that courtroom,” he said. “Let’s face it, there aren’t that many African-American [district attorneys] in North Carolina, and so a lot of that appearance of fairness and justice has been through judges on the bench.”

Superior Court Judge Carl Fox is double-bunked in proposed plans to redistrict the judiciary. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

There is a disparity in sentencing when it comes to white and African American defendants, he said, but sharing the same race with a defendant doesn’t necessarily mean a judge will be easier on them.

“It just means that some things you’ll understand better as a judge whose come from a minority background than you might if you had not, and it just gives you a different perspective,” he said.

Fox went on to say that it’s not just race that legislators should be concerned about – the proposed maps would also set back efforts to diversify the bench in the age and sex of judges.

Younger people with young or moderately aged children won’t want to travel so far under the reduced judicial divisions. Women who are starting families might also be dissuaded from running for judicial seats because of the travel.

Fox said when he started as a judge 13 years ago, most judges were older men who didn’t have grade-school aged children at home.

“There were only three divisions — someone like me would have to go to Brunswick or Wilmington [from Orange County] for six months,” he said.

He added that having a diverse bench matters for everyone, not just Black or African-American citizens.

“I mean it makes a difference to walk in the courtroom and see someone who’s different from the majority on the bench,” he said. “It just does.”

Robinson, who has been a judge for seven years, said most of the gerrymandered districts in the proposed judicial maps have a much higher impact on judges of color and judges who happen to be registered as Democrats.

“And so you can draw whatever conclusion you wish from that, but that’s just a statement of fact as far as what the actual impact is, regardless of what the motivation or impetus was,” Robinson said.

Burr and other Republican legislators have denied any racial gerrymandering but have said the maps give Republican judges more of an edge to make up for partisan gerrymandering of judicial districts in years past.

The judges who have spoken out in opposition to the maps have pointed out the partisan implications lawmakers have forced onto the judicial branch.

“I think we’re just sort of getting lost in the shuffle – we’re the third co-equal branch of government; justice knows no R nor D, and further, justice knows no geography,” Robinson said. “We don’t represent people – the law is our constituent. We serve all of the people of all of the districts, regardless of our party ID, regardless of where we lay our heads at night and certainly regardless of where the people in front of us lay their heads at night.”

She added that it really disenfranchises voters to carve up judicial districts. In her case, splitting Pender and New Hanover counties into three voting districts would mean that two-thirds of the people whose lives she would be impacting would not have had an opportunity to vote for or against her.

“I just don’t know of any public clamor to reform the judiciary and [this plan] does nothing to serve the ends of justice or the best interest of the citizens,” she added. “There’s no good purpose behind it and no good benefit, in my view.”

Davis said lawmakers have made judges’ jobs overly-political – something they’ve always intentionally avoided.

“Whether or not somebody was driving while impaired, that’s not political; splitting up somebody’s marital property, it’s not political,” she said. “There’s very little, especially at the District Court level, that ever gets addressed as far as politics are concerned. … No matter which political affiliation we are, I think the judges themselves have tried to keep it non-political and would like for it to remain non-political.”

Baddour said there is no place for politics in the courtroom.

“I’ve had cases in which my own personal beliefs may not align with the decision I’ve made and other times when it does, but that has to be set aside for the system to work the way it should, and I think that the judges on the bench follow that same philosophy,” he said. “But the truth is, until about a year ago when things started getting political, I was unaware of judges’ political affiliations — even some of my good friends. I don’t know and I don’t care, and I think that’s a telling example about how pervasive politics is becoming in the court system.”

Learn more on the Progressive Pulse blog about the judges’ careers highlighted in this story.