Kudos to Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, for filing House Bill 717, Revise Judicial Districts. With all the talk — and court cases — around redistricting, focused primarily on the legislative and congressional maps, raising awareness of the judicial districts is an important issue. Although there have been minor adjustments over the years, some judicial and prosecutorial districts haven’t changed since 1965. Across state government, North Carolina should make all efforts to ensure equal access to a well-functioning judicial system and make adjustments, Now is a good time to thoughtfully consider how judicial districts can best serve the people of North Carolina.
Redrawing judicial districts deserves careful thought. Again, kudos to Burr for bringing the issue forward. But changes to the judicial system that affect every North Carolinian deserve careful thought, advice from experts, thorough review, tough scrutiny, and thorough debate.
Brought up in the final days of the 2017 legislative session, H.B. 717 remains in the House Elections Committee. During the interim, Burr is traveling across the state, meeting with judges and district attorneys for feedback and suggestions on his plan.
With North Carolina’s growing population and changing demographics, judicial maps deserve another look if they have not been adjusted in a while. But unlike legislative and congressional districts, judicial districts do not have to be redrawn regularly to ensure equal representation in each district. Judges don’t come together to vote on judicial issues, so there’s no reason each district would have to be the same size, either geographically or by population. As long as resources are allocated proportionately, with larger districts getting more funding than smaller ones, it doesn’t matter whether one district is larger than another. The key should be that the judicial system is organized to give all residents access to fair administration of justice.
Lawmakers should avoid pursuing a redistricting plan whose only goal is increasing a partisan advantage. The N.C. Courts Commission may be the most appropriate body to construct judicial districts.
N.C. General Statute 7A-508 appears to give the commission the authority to study and make recommendations to the General Assembly, if not draw the maps themselves:
It shall be the duty of the Commission to make continuing studies of the structure, organization, jurisdiction, procedures and personnel of the Judicial Department and of the General Court of Justice and to make recommendations to the General Assembly for such changes therein as will facilitate the administration of justice. (1979, c. 1077, s. 1.)
In the N.C. Courts Commission report to the 2017 General Assembly, the Administrative Office of the Courts presented information and criteria regarding efforts to study the reorganization of judicial and prosecutorial districts to the General Assembly. The Courts Commission chair, Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-Surry, suggested the 2020 elections would be the earliest for changes to judicial districts made by the General Assembly based on recommendations from the Courts Commission.
North Carolina’s judicial districts should be evaluated to ensure the fair and accessible administration of justice. The process should be thoughtful and deliberate, with input from interested parties across the state. Districts should not be drawn based purely on political gain. The Courts Commission is the appropriate and statutorily authorized body to make recommendations to the General Assembly. Redrawing judicial districts is a good idea. Let’s make sure we get it right.
Becki Gray is senior vice president at the John Locke Foundation.