RALEIGH, N.C. — Senate Republicans on Wednesday promised full but brisk debate with outside input on potentially dramatic changes to North Carolina’s judiciary, including new election districts or eliminating head-to-head races for judgeships.
Meeting for the first time, a special Senate committee discussed GOP legislation approved by the full House last month that redrew election boundaries for Superior Court judges, District Court judges and district attorneys.
Committee leaders anticipated a half-dozen meetings over the next several weeks. The General Assembly reconvenes in early January, when GOP lawmakers hope to take action.
“This committee recognizes that the judiciary touches every North Carolinian,” said Sen. Warren Daniel, a Burke County Republican and a committee co-chairman. “We’re going to carefully consider all options that we have before us and that are not yet before us in looking at ways that we can make our judiciary system better.”
Rep. Justin Burr, a Stanly County Republican and author of the judicial redistricting plan, said the proposed boundaries are designed to clean up statewide judicial election lines first assembled more than 50 years but altered piecemeal ever since, resulting in uneven and unfair districts. The measure would more closely overlay the districts for the two trial courts and the DAs, leading to improved efficiencies, he said.
“We have an unsystematic mess that in my view needs to be cleaned up immediately,” Burr told the committee during the nearly 4½-hour meeting.
Democrats argue the proposed judicial districts are politically motivated, designed to help Republicans particularly in urban areas where judges who are registered Democrats are more frequently elected. Democratic Sen. Terry Van Duyn asked Burr why Buncombe County was split into two District Court districts in which four of the seven seats covered the Republican areas of her county.
“It is a difficult for me to come to any other conclusion other than my county was cut in two for political purposes,” Van Duyn said. Burr responded that the change was made to avoid having incumbent judges run against each other. He said the maps were neither partisan nor racial gerrymanders.
Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue of Wake County agreed changes to boundaries are warranted but warned Burr his proposal was ripe for litigation. Blue pointed to voter registration and statewide election results attached to each proposed map that signals which party may have an advantage in each district.
Two experts on judicial election and redistricting later told the committee both the current boundaries and the proposed House plans could face constitutional challenges.
For example, there are multicounty District Court districts where the law requires that candidates for a seat live in a specific county. That could be an additional candidate qualification that violates the state constitution, said Gerry Cohen, a former General Assembly staff attorney. Other large population differences between judicial districts could be a problem, the law experts said.
Senate Republicans also are expected to evaluate “merit selection” proposals whereby partisan head-to-head elections would end.
In one system, the governor would appoint a judge, whom the legislature would then confirm. In another, a commission would pick potential judicial candidates who would be winnowed down by lawmakers before the governor makes the appointment. An appointee would then be subject to an up-or-down vote in a retention election to remain on the job. These changes would require a constitutional amendment approved by voters.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper is suspicious of quick moves by the legislature to advance a judicial selection plan, and told reporters this week he wants attorneys and judges to oppose whatever surfaces.
“We need to wait until we’ve had an opportunity to look at all of the plans before we just slap it on the ballot,” he said Tuesday. Another Republican proposal facing broader opposition would force all judges to run for re-election every two years, compared with four or eight years today.