When the North Carolina General Assembly convenes in a few weeks for the 2018 legislative short session, lawmakers will once again be asked to consider new judicial voting maps. At last Friday’s meeting of the Joint Judicial Redistricting and Reform Committee, members evaluated three proposals that still appear intended, as one high-ranking official said last year, to affect the partisan makeup of our courts.
Introduced as House Bill 717, the new maps join a long list of controversial bills the legislature has proposed and passed to target the state’s impartial and independent judiciary. For instance, all judicial candidates must now identity themselves by partisan affiliation. Our state’s appeals court was shrunk, explicitly to shift its partisan balance. And, the 2018 judicial primary was canceled to allow legislators more time to scheme against the courts — denying citizens their vote and guaranteeing a longer, more confusing judicial ballot in the 2018 general election.
There could be more bad ideas on the way. Proposals to slash judicial terms of sitting judges would transform courtroom decision-makers into full-time campaigners. Lawmakers could also eliminate voters’ ability to choose judges altogether. And, during Friday’s committee meeting, two bills (House Bills 240 and 241) reemerged to strip the governor’s power to fill judicial vacancies and give it to lawmakers. The latter prompted Republican Rep. John Blust to turn to his colleagues and ask, “Why in a General Assembly that’s not competent to make this decision to appoint judges and that has so much to do…why do we want to take on one more thing?”
These proposals aren’t sitting well with North Carolinians either.
During recent town hall-style events held in nearly 30 counties, voters have packed churches, community centers, and public squares to oppose these threats to an independent judiciary.
In Fayetteville, experienced trial judges targeted for elimination by new voting districts (many of whom are women or African-American or both) stood among a packed room of community members to oppose the proposed Cumberland County judicial maps — drawn almost identically to legislative ones that were found to be unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. As one of the county’s district court judges said, “It’s not just about them taking away your right to vote, it’s about whether you get to vote for a judge you know.”
The outcry prompted Fayetteville to join Rocky Mount this month as one of two North Carolina cities to unanimously oppose these legislative proposals.
In Beaufort County, one of five counties to have passed resolutions opposing judicial changes, five Republican commissioners joined two Democrats in unanimously pushing back against these attacks on judges’ impartiality.
At a town hall in Washington, NC, shortly afterward, commissioners said that bipartisan support for the opposition resolution had come easily. As one Republican commissioner told the media, “Someone in Raleigh doesn’t know Beaufort County the way we do.”
This month in Winston-Salem, Forsyth County superior and district court judges joined their community to publicly speak against the legislature’s judicial attacks. One was District Court Judge Gordon Miller, who’s been practicing law for more than 40 years. As a Republican and self-professed NRA member, he told the capacity crowd, “I don’t sit on the bench as a member of the NRA or a Republican, I sit there as a District Court judge.”
Miller added, “I disagree with the bills that have been proposed and I think they’re horrible ideas.”
Judge Miller isn’t alone. Bill sponsors have struggled to find support for House Bill 717 and other judicial attacks.
They’ve faced opposition from the legal community, conservative media, and even among their legislative colleagues. To date, no legal or judicial association has formally endorsed these changes. The conservative outlet Carolina Journal published an editorial calling House Bill 717’s judicial redistricting “a fight that’s not worth having.” Rep. Blust voiced similar concerns in January about efforts to remake the judiciary during a hearing of the same Joint Judicial Committee at work this week. “I don’t think honestly the public is going to accept it.”
Over the past several months, the message has been clear: the public is not accepting it.
The reason is simple even if the concepts of judicial redistricting or appointment are not. Our justice system exists so that everyone can rely on fair treatment from independent courts; but many North Carolinians feel like that system is under attack.
They want those attacks to end.
Lawmakers should listen.
Jen Jones is Communications Director for Democracy North Carolina.