Raleigh, N.C. — House lawmakers are expected to vote Thursday on three bills that would block or rescind judicial appointments by Gov. Roy Cooper. That’s even as a three-judge panel is weighing a constitutional challenge to laws passed in December that limit other appointments by the Democratic governor.
All three bills were approved on party lines, 7-6, Wednesday morning with little debate and less public comment by the House Judiciary IV Committee.
House Bill 239 would reduce the size of the state Court of Appeals from 15 judges to 12. The reductions would come as judges retire, and the first would occur in June with the retirement of Judge Doug McCullough. Two other judges will retire before 2020.
Under current law, Cooper would appoint replacements to serve the remainders of their terms. With the change, Cooper will not be able to make any appointments.
Bill sponsor Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-Surry, said she had not consulted anyone at the Court of Appeals about the reduction and acknowledged it had not been recommended by a study commission put together by Chief Justice Mark Martin. Stevens also acknowledged that no workflow study has been done, but she said she believes that a diminishing caseload coming before the court warrants fewer judges.
The bill would also add new types of cases to those that skip the Court of Appeals and go directly to the state Supreme Court. Stevens estimated that would lessen the appeals court workload by 100 cases a year.
Rep. Chaz Beasley, D-Mecklenburg, pointed out that a law approved in December created an en banc process for the appeals court that will increase the court’s workload, but Stevens said she doesn’t believe it will often be invoked.
Asked whether the change was proposed for political reasons, Stevens denied it. However, fellow sponsor Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, did not.
Burr told the committee that Democrats added three judges to the court in 1999 "because (the public) was electing members that were not of the party that was in charge at the General Assembly."
"It was increased for political reasons," he said.
The state trial lawyers’ association and retired Court of Appeals Judge Martha Geer asked to address the committee. Each was allowed one minute by Chairman Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke.
Dick Taylor with North Carolina Advocates for Justice informed the committee that, on average last year, each state Supreme Court justice wrote six opinions, while the 15 judges on the Court of Appeals averaged 100 opinions each.
Geer, who retired last year after 13 years on the court, said she was disappointed by the strict time limit on her comment "when there has been no discussion with anyone on the Court of Appeals."
"The reason I'm here is because deleting these positions is going to result in appeals being delayed and less time being spent on appeals," she warned. "You are hurting all North Carolina citizens by this legislation."
Under the bill, McCullough’s retirement would leave 14 judges on the court, reducing the number of three-judge panels from five to four, Geer said. In addition, cases on termination of parental rights, which are normally expedited, will likely be delayed.
"Every day a child has to wait to know who their parents are going to be is torture," she told the committee. "With all due respect, that is a personal impact on the citizens of North Carolina."
Lawmakers want to name trial court judges
The panel also approved House Bill 240, which would take away the governor’s power to appoint judges to fill the unexpired terms for District Court vacancies, and House Bill 241, which would take away the the governor’s power to appoint special Superior Court judges.
Instead, all of those appointments would be made by state lawmakers in the annual appointments bill.
When there is a District Court vacancy between sessions, the House speaker and Senate president pro tem would agree on a replacement. The governor would then be required to appoint their nominee within 10 days.
"Why are we changing from the practice we currently have to this new procedure?" asked Rep. Kelly Alexander, D-Mecklenburg. "Was some deficiency found?"
"When the governor does it, it's behind closed doors," Burr said. "Here, it'll be done in committee. It’ll be a public process for these vacancies to be filled, and I think that's beneficial."
Pressed for the reason to make the changes now, Burr said he had advocated for them for years, even under former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory's administration.
"I can't speak to why it hasn't been done in the past," he replied.