Raleigh, N.C. — A statewide redraw of North Carolina's judicial districts, which emerged in what may be the last week of this legislative session, is headed to the House floor after tense debate, accusations of a gerrymander, calls for delay and a party-line committee vote.
The Republican measure, which Gov. Roy Cooper decried Monday as an attempt to "rig the courts," reworks District and Superior Court district lines, as well as prosecutorial districts. It eliminates a pair of district attorneys, both Democrats, in southern rural counties.
Rep. Duane Hall, D-Wake, said the new election lines for judges would likely put 14 Democrats and 41 Republicans on the bench at the District Court level. In Superior Court, Hall put the count at 12 Democrats and 45 Republicans.
That analysis was based on the partisan leanings of precincts moved around in the redistricting bill that Hall said was performed by his legislative assistant. The Republican-controlled General Assembly voted earlier this year to return to partisan judicial elections, a decision made over Cooper's veto.
Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, who worked on House Bill 717 in relative secret for months, said he is correcting a Democratic gerrymander, not implementing a Republican one. He said the current lines were drawn decades ago, then reworked piecemeal by the legislature's long-standing Democratic majority "every time a Republican judge was elected."
Burr said his bill was the first step of a multi-year process to create fair judicial districts and to counter district-by-district population imbalances that have emerged over the years. In Mecklenburg County, he said, the district lines mean half the population gets to elect only two of the county's seven judges.
Burr acknowledged, though, that the new maps were drawn without significant input from the state's judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, court clerks or the state's Administrative Office of the Courts. When Democrats tried to pin him down in committee over how decisions were made and whether they could have time to consult their local judges before voting, Burr made it clear the legislation would move forward but also said repeatedly that he welcomed input.
"You've got all the time you need as the bill moves through the process," Burr told state Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake.
The legislative session, in its 89th day Monday, may wrap as soon as Friday. A Democratic effort to amend the bill in the House Judiciary I Committee on Monday afternoon was turned back on the same 7-5 party-line vote that advanced the bill to the House floor.
Left-leaning good-government groups blasted the maps as a partisan power grab. Legislators complained that they first saw Burr's bill over the weekend. A pair of sitting Superior Court judges came to the hearing to oppose the bill, as did one of the district attorneys set to lose her job if it passes.
Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, a former District Court judge, pleaded with committee members to slow down.
"There is no need to rush, the last week of this session, such a monumental change," said Morey.
Hall noted that a Guilford County judicial district in the new maps looks very similar to state Sen. Gladys Robinson's district, one of the legislative districts struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court as a racial gerrymander. The high court also struck down North Carolina's congressional map, finding two districts were racially gerrymandered.
Burr said he did not consult racial population breakdowns as he drew the judicial lines.
"There's clearly some reason these lines are as squiggly as they are," Martin said during committee.
"There were a number of factors that went into it," Burr replied.
House Bill 717, which now heads to the House floor, would take effect in phases, as judges come up for re-election.