News: CJ Exclusives

Judicial reform committee meeting dominated by cross-talk

Committee Democrats grill Republicans over details of legislation that's not yet available

House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, confers with Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly (seated), at Thursday's meeting of the Joint Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting. (CJ photo by Dan Way)
House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, confers with Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly (seated), at Thursday's meeting of the Joint Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting. (CJ photo by Dan Way)

Couples therapy might be dissolving into irreconcilable differences after Thursday’s bumpy initial meeting of the Joint Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting.

During more than three hours of presentations and questioning, Democrats and Republicans often seemed to talk past one another, unlike the more collegial atmosphere in meetings of a special Senate committee on judicial reform. Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, said the Senate committee’s meetings were “tantamount to couples’ therapy” while studying the issues, in contrast to Thursday’s testy atmosphere.

Sen. Dan Bishop, R-Mecklenburg, a committee co-chairman, acknowledged deep differences between the two parties but indicated Democrats may be unable to thwart Republican efforts. “We’ll have at least another meeting. We’ve got some other things to go through, and we’ll see what develops,” Bishop told Carolina Journal after the meeting.

Bishop also noted the mood swing. “I heard people a little more down in their bunkers today firing shots,” he said.

The committee took no action.

It was formed to study appointing rather than electing judges, and House-passed judicial maps to correct outdated districts with huge population disparities.

“I’m confident that this General Assembly will move a plan to resolve the constitutional deficiencies that are in the maps,” Bishop told CJ.

Other lawmakers had their doubts. Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, and Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, said voters would not approve a constitutional amendment taking away their right to elect judges.

Republicans saw the joint committee meeting as a chance to bring members up to speed on House Bill 717 — a measure redrawing obsolete judicial maps and appropriating $9 million for additional judicial staff and resources. They wanted to share information about the work done to date on four possible methods of judicial merit selection.

Democrats instead sought answers to questions about H.B. 717’s racial impacts, and whether the map changes would pass a constitutional challenge. They asked whether the judicial appointment system championed by Senate Republicans would let the GOP manipulate the process to its political advantage.

Their line of questioning echoed many of the complaints in successful lawsuits against state legislative and congressional redistricting.

Bishop and fellow co-chairman Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, both cautioned Democrats that most of the details would be hammered out in future committee meetings.

Rep. Robert Reives, D-Lee, wanted to know if the judicial maps drawn by Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, a committee co-chairman, had to comply with the Voting Rights Act. Staff said yes, which Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake, and others had confirmed in the Senate committee.

Rep. Duane Hall, D-Wake, suggested Burr’s redistricting plan would put 60 percent of minority judges in the same districts, forcing them to run against one another. Burr disputed that number, saying he did not use judges’ addresses when drawing the maps.

Burr said crafting new judicial districts after the 2020 census, as Blue recommended, would mean voters, especially in heavily minority urban areas, would vote in unconstitutional districts with wildly disparate populations for at least two, and possibly three election cycles.

Burr noted federal courts have urged the state to fix unconstitutional legislative and congressional districts immediately rather than waiting for the next census.

Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, outlined four judicial selection models the committee will consider, including keeping the current system.

Under the plan getting the most traction, the public would nominate candidates. An appointed committee would recommend qualified candidates to the General Assembly. Lawmakers then would submit at least three finalists to the governor for appointment. A retention election with a term limit would follow.

House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake, was concerned there is nothing in the appointment committee process to ensure a bipartisan slate of nominees is submitted to the General Assembly.

Jackson and Sen. Joel Ford, D-Mecklenburg, noted the process would not guarantee a diverse pool of nominees based on race, sex, religion, or geographic region.