News: Quick Takes

Debate on judicial redistricting to come after committee gets civics lesson

Democrats on the House Select Committee on Judicial Redistricting on Tuesday tried to raise objections to the comprehensive judicial redistricting plans in House Bill 717. They got a detailed history and civics lessons instead.

Rep. Joe John, D-Wake, asked if there were Voting Rights Act concerns with the proposed judicial maps, whether experts giving presentations to the committee helped to draw them, and if past election results were considered when reconfiguring districts.

House Democratic Whip Rodney Moore, D-Mecklenburg, wanted to know if judges’ home addresses were used when creating the boundaries. He said it appeared some judges were moved into the same district, and would have to run against each other.

Democrats raised similar concerns during earlier legislative redistricting debates.

Committee Chairman Justin Burr, R-Stanly, a primary sponsor of H.B. 717, cut off the questions. He said Tuesday’s initial meeting was to provide historical information. Debate will not begin until the next committee meeting, set for 1:00 p.m. Sept. 19 at the Legislative Complex — if then.

The state last redrew all of its judicial districts in 1955.

James Drennan, former director of the state Administrative Office of the Courts, and Marion Warren, its present director, appeared before the committee. They gave a history of how North Carolina judges are selected, and an overview of the administration, structure, and operation of the courts.

There’s no consensus on the best method for choosing judges, said Drennan, a professor at the UNC School of Government. “If you’re worried about federalism, it’s alive and well” in the myriad ways states select judges.

Appointment, election (partisan or nonpartisan), and merit selection each poses challenges, Drennan said. There’s no way to find the right balance between necessary judicial independence and public accountability, he said.

In North Carolina the legislature appointed judges for about 80 years after statehood. The state switched to partisan judicial elections in 1868. District and superior court races became nonpartisan contests in the 1990s, and this year the General Assembly passed legislation to revert to partisan elections.

Warren said North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Mark Martin wants the committee to consider a possible change from judicial elections to appointments.

He said most district and superior court judges were pleased with the maps, but others were upset, saying gerrymandering would disenfranchise voters.

Any new set of maps will have winners and losers, he said.

Rep. Allen McNeill, R-Randolph, countered worries the new maps would create population and staffing disparities. He said it would be easy to move workers from an old district to a new one.

Warren said long-term court workers would object to lengthy commutes just to keep their jobs.

Warren and Drennan both noted that Superior Court judges have a long history in North Carolina of rotating between counties. But committee Democrats voiced concern the new maps would force some judges to make longer drives.

Rep. Andy Dulin, R-Mecklenburg, said he drives 376 miles round-trip from Charlotte to Raleigh, and stays in a Red Roof Inn during legislative sessions. Superior Court judges receive higher pay than he does, and work in a job they have chosen.

“For them to travel back and forth some is OK with me,” Dulin said.