Courts Commission tells lawmakers to stay judicial redistricting

Posted September 29, 2017 5:31 p.m. EDT
Updated July 13, 2018 1:47 p.m. EDT

— The North Carolina Courts Commission told lawmakers Friday to put off plans to revamp the state's Superior Court, District Court and prosecutorial districts until next year.

By law, the bipartisan commission is the panel that is supposed to oversee judicial redistricting in the state. But there hasn't been a statewide overhaul in 60 years.

Republican legislative leaders say it's time to take matters into their own hands, arguing that population growth and piecemeal changes over the years have led to districts that don't meet people's needs.

The full House was expected to debate new judicial district maps next week, but the Courts Commission voted 9-5 after hearing hours of testimony from judges and attorneys to recommend lawmakers wait until they return for the 2018 legislative session to take action.

Orange County Chief District Court Judge Joe Buckner and Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gale Adams warned the proposal would create chaos and backlogs in the court system.

"This is a critical issue that affects a large number of people, the citizens of this state, and so what is the rush?" Adams asked.

The proposed maps, which were made public only earlier this week, realign groupings of counties that have shared court systems for decades.

They also carve up urban counties into districts designed to help Republicans win more seats and force some Democratic judges run against each other to remain on the bench.

"I think you’re fixing something that wasn’t broken, and I think you’re going to end up with tremendous cost for no added benefit," said Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell, a member of the commission.

Bell noted that Superior Court judges would face longer travel times to various counties under the revamp, which could impact their ability to hear cases.

"No one is required to run for public office if they don’t think they can meet the requirements," replied Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, the sponsor of the redistricting measure. "If you don’t feel comfortable that you can travel and do your job, then you shouldn’t run for office."

Many judges agreed that judicial districts need to be updated, but they said the process needs to be done carefully and more transparently.

"I would not want us to act in a hurry to do or even to recommend anything – such a big impact," Court of Appeals Judge Donna Stroud said.

Burr said he isn't swayed by the Courts Commission's recommendation.

"Unfortunately, with action like today, they continue to show just how irrelevant they are and that they're not willing to really take steps to reform and update our court system," Burr said.

Commission members are merely trying to protect the status quo for themselves and their friends, he said.