Judicial redistricting bill pulled ... for now

Posted June 27

Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly

— A massive judicial redistricting bill that emerged over the weekend has been put on hold, though it's expected back before the General Assembly later this year, potentially in tandem with a court-ordered redraw of legislative maps.

House Bill 717 would rework election districts for trial court judges and district attorneys around the state. It got its first hearing Monday, catching Democrats and most of the judiciary by surprise, then headed to the House floor on a party-line vote.

It was pulled back Tuesday, its future undetermined.

State Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-Surry, who supports these changes and chairs the North Carolina Courts Commission, said the commission would review the bill in the coming months. She said that likely won't be until August and that the bill may lay fallow until at least then.

"A lot of things can happen, but that's my prediction," said Stevens.

With legislators hoping to adjourn this session by week's end, the bill faced a ticking clock, particularly in the state Senate.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said Tuesday night that it would have been very difficult to move such major legislation in a few days, but the issue may be ripe when the General Assembly gathers to address its legislative map, which the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional.

"I think, if we have a redistricting session, which I'm sure we're going to have, [judicial redistricting] would seem to be an appropriate thing to have as a subject," Berger, R-Rockingham, said. "I think that would give us, arguably would give us, the time to look at it more carefully.

"I just can't commit that that's what we're going to do," he added.

Proposed Superior Court district map

State Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, carried this bill and told House Judiciary Committee members Monday that it was partly an effort to correct decades of Democratic gerrymanders of judicial districts. He also said there are population imbalances between districts, particularly in Mecklenburg County.

State Rep. Duane Hall, D-Wake, said his office's analysis of the bill, along with voting tendencies, showed it to be an overwhelming shift to GOP-friendly election districts for judges around the state. The General Assembly's Republican majority, through another bill Burr sponsored, voted earlier this year to return to partisan judicial elections, putting R's and D's beside judges' names on the ballot.

A number of judges and other court personnel complained about the surprise proposal, though Stevens said she didn't know whether that impacted the legislative timeline. The North Carolina Bar Association came out against the bill in a formal statement Tuesday and called on members to contact legislators.

Burr tweeted a screenshot Tuesday that appeared to show an email from a Superior Court judge attempting to organize a mass protest at the legislature, suggesting judges cancel court and show up in their black robes. Burr tweeted that, if the judge "wants to participate in the legislative process, she needs to take off her robe and run for the legislature."

An attempt to reach the judge Tuesday night was not immediately successful.

Berger said he sees merit in reviewing judicial districts, but he stopped well short of endorsing Burr's highly detailed maps.

"I think something needs to be done to look at it," Berger said. "I can't say that every change that was proposed in that map was something I would endorse."


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