Democrats irked by proposed judicial district maps

Posted January 22, 2018 6:11 p.m. EST
Updated July 13, 2018 1:48 p.m. EDT

— Democratic lawmakers lobbed questions and criticisms Monday at Republican colleagues pushing changes to how judges are selected in North Carolina.

The House last fall approved an overhaul of the voting districts in which trial court judges are elected, with GOP backers saying the current districts haven't kept up with population changes. The Senate has proposed its own maps for Superior Court and District Court districts, but the chamber hasn't yet voted on them.

A joint House and Senate committee met Monday to discuss proposed changes and gather more input in an effort to reach a compromise, but Democratic members expressed frustration at the lack of background material, saying they have no clue as to how Republicans drew their proposed maps.

"You cannot draw a map without criteria. Did you consider race? Did you consider partisanship? Did you consider incumbency?" asked Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake. "You want participation and tell us to participate, but you're not letting us participate."

Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, the sponsor of the House plan, said he merely used population as the basis for the new districts. Legislative leaders said no other statistics are available to back up the maps.

Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, questioned the division of Buncombe County into three judicial districts. Trial court judges there currently run in countywide elections.

"You've changed the way we elect our county commissioners, you've tried to change the way we elect out [Asheville] City Council and now you want to change the way we elect our judges," Van Duyn said. "Stop giving us special treatment.

Sen. Joel Ford, D-Mecklenburg, had similar concerns about judges in his home county, saying the proposed maps split the county into white, suburban districts and a black, urban district.

"That's not the way we want it to work in Mecklenburg County," Ford said.

Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, a committee co-chairman, repeatedly said Democratic complaints were "argumentative" and out of order, as the meeting was only to address changes in previous iterations of the maps and ideas for further improvements.

There was little discussion Monday of a Senate proposal to appoint judges rather than elect them, and no timetable was set for future committee meetings to discuss that idea and to debate and vote on final judicial district maps.

Critics of the maps say have said they would give Republicans a disproportionate share of seats on the bench and would eliminate as many as half the sitting black judges.

"I hope that the members of the committee, the members of the public, the members of the judiciary who have an interest in this issue will take a look at this latest version of the map and offer us ways to continue to improve it," Lewis said.

Other maps in courts

Meanwhile, lawmakers are waiting on federal courts for a decision on legislative voting maps.

The GOP leadership plans to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to stay a ruling by a three-judge panel that House and Senate district maps drawn by an independent expert must be used in the 2018 elections. The panel ruled Friday that nine legislative districts, as drawn by lawmakers, remain racially gerrymandered.

Four of those nine are Wake County House districts. The challenged districts also include a Senate district in Cumberland County and a House district in Wayne County.

"The bottom line is this: We were ordered by the court [last year] to come into session and cure a racial gerrymander. They said race played too big a role in the drawing of our districts. So, we redrew the districts without using race. That should have solved this issue," Lewis said. "But instead, this district court has gone one step further, and said, 'Oh, we're going to think of some other stuff that we might still be concerned with.'"

The Supreme Court did step in Thursday to block a ruling by a different three-judge panel saying lawmakers must redraw their congressional districts because they were overly partisan. The nation's highest court is currently deciding several cases on partisan redistricting.