Opinion: Daily Journal

A fight that’s not worth having

Any judicial redistricting plan passed along partisan lines would wind up in court, where lawyers would cash in at the expense of taxpayers

If you can’t beat ‘em, sue ‘em. It has been the default setting of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and his liberal allies even before the governor took office 14 months ago. 

Any time the Republican-led General Assembly moved to assert its authority, the Left has given a simple response: See you in court. 

So far, the clear winners in these scuffles have been the attorneys who have collected millions of dollars in legal fees. The clear losers: North Carolina taxpayers, who have paid those fees. 

That’s why Republican lawmakers might want to think twice about another pending collision with state Democrats: judicial redistricting. 

It’s been nearly 60 years since the state totally revamped judicial maps. They’ve haven’t been looked at comprehensively since the 1960s, even though the state’s population has more than doubled and its population centers have shifted dramatically. 

During legislative hearings about judicial redistricting — and a host of meetings with judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and other members of the legal community — lawmakers have found few fans of the current setup. Among the complaints: burdensome caseloads, not enough staffing, and some judges seeking to dispatch cases efficiently at the expense of properly dispensing justice. 

Last year, the House passed House Bill 717, drawing new maps and reallocating judges, prosecutors and judicial staffing. The Senate, instead, wants to discuss a constitutional amendment that would end judicial elections and have politicians pick judges. Neither chamber has shown much interest in adopting the other’s priority. 

The Left has called the House plan hastily hatched and overly partisan. The first argument has merit. 

Why the rush? The governor can veto judicial redistricting bills — a power he doesn’t have over legislative or congressional maps. The GOP holds a veto-proof majority in the House and the Senate, and Democrats have faith they can gain enough seats in November to give Cooper leverage. Democrats could win a legislative chamber outright. 

Perhaps the only chance to get a Republican-friendly judicial redistricting bill passed into law is to do it before the 2019 General Assembly convenes. 

Republicans would be wise to resist the temptation. If we’ve learned anything about redistricting since 1990, you can guarantee the new maps will wind up in court. 

Democratic critics suggest the maps may violate Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act. Left-leaning advocacy groups raise the specter of “packing” black judges in mostly urban districts and white judges in suburban and rural seats. They may have a point. 

Unlike legislative or congressional redistricting lawsuits, we don’t have much federal case law dealing with racial bias in judicial districts. North Carolina’s one of a mere handful of states that elects all of its judges in partisan races, so precedents are hard to come by. 

Those cases drag on for months, if not years. The new General Assembly will be seated long before a legal fight over judicial districts ends. Unless Republicans are confident they can hold their veto-proof lock over Jones Street, they’ll probably lose. 

So will the taxpayers of North Carolina. 

This might not be a fight worth having now.