News: CJ Exclusives

Full N.C. House may consider redrawing judicial election maps

Judicial districts have been in place with only minor modifications since 1955

The N.C. House could decide next week whether it wants to redraw election maps for judges across North Carolina. A special committee endorsed the idea Wednesday afternoon by a 21-8 vote after nearly four hours of discussion and debate.

“Since the last major reforms to our state’s judicial districts in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there have been no significant, coordinated statewide efforts to revise our judicial districts,” said Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, committee chairman and leader of the House judicial redistricting effort. “Instead the General Assembly has sporadically made piecemeal and fragmented changes over the past 50 years, resulting in overlapping and unbalanced judicial districts and election districts.”

Burr’s House Bill 717 would shift election district lines, cut the number of judicial divisions statewide, shift some judges among districts, and add new judges to districts. It would correct issues such as a voter imbalance in Mecklenburg County, Burr said.

That county elects seven Superior Court judges from three districts. A district with 151,000 voters elects two judges, while a district with 466,000 voters elects another two. “Today there are three outdated election districts that have been in place for nearly 30 years that are still used for Superior Court, and I believe they do a real disservice to the voters and residents of Mecklenburg County.”

Colleagues such as Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke, praised Burr’s work. “Sixty years of not having a general overhaul of these divisions has let them get out of whack in serious ways,” Blackwell said. “I’m glad to say that my area of the state — my district — under this bill is going to gain a district court judge, which we need.”

“We’re going to gain some assistant [district attorneys], which I think we need,” Blackwell added. “This is a good bill. It may not be perfect, but nobody has offered anything other than unsubstantiated claims and false claims that we haven’t gone about it in the right way.”

Democrats raised a series of objections. Rep. Joe John, D-Wake, asked Burr a series of questions about the impact of House Bill 717 on the racial makeup of judicial election districts in urban counties. In each case, Burr answered that race was not considered as he drew new maps.

Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, also addressed Burr. “I know you’ve spoken to many judges in many districts — I’ve done the same because they’ve been colleagues,” said Morey, who left the Durham County bench to enter the General Assembly. “Unanimously, I have not heard of any judge supporting this major transformation of our judicial system.”

House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake, said Burr’s plan would violate the goal of electoral parity. “Rural voters in the state will get to elect more judges than urban areas of the state.”

Jackson suggested a partisan bias within Burr’s plan. “There’s just no rhyme or reason to the way we’re dividing that up other than that it’s clear that we’re dividing up urban counties that tend to vote Democratic  and we’re not dividing up counties that tend to vote Republican as a whole.”

John also offered a substitute for H.B. 717 that would establish an independent commission to draw judicial maps, with the maps given an up-or-down vote by the General Assembly. Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-Surry, who chairs the N.C. Courts Commission, notes that the state constitution places redistricting in the hands of the General Assembly and that John’s measure would tie the legislature’s hands.

The committee rejected the proposed substitute, along with another by John asking the Courts Commission to recommend new maps and report to the General Assembly’s 2018 short session.

The full House returns to Raleigh for an Oct. 4 session. House Rules Committee Chairman David Lewis, R-Harnett, said the judicial redistricting plan must go through a separate committee before being eligible for consideration by House members.