Judges, attorneys caution legislature on judicial redistricting

Posted September 19, 2017 7:04 p.m. EDT
Updated September 19, 2017 7:40 p.m. EDT

— Judges called on state legislators Tuesday to pump the brakes on a plan to redraw judicial and prosecutorial districts around the state, but the man behind the plan said he's aiming for an October vote.

They also raised the possibility that some of the currently proposed districts, drawn in part to favor Republican election chances, won't have enough lawyers living in them to produce strong candidate pools.

"They are Republican-leaning without many lawyers living in them," Judge Athena Brooks, who described herself as a Republican and spoke for the North Carolina Association of District Court Judges, said of the proposed new map.

A select committee of House members has met twice now on state Rep. Justin Burr's plan to rework districts – a plan that took the state's judges by surprise when he rolled it out in June and a plan Democrats say would shift the state's judiciary hard to the right.

Burr, R-Stanly, said a new version of his map should be ready for a public unveiling next week. The North Carolina Courts Commission meets next Friday and is slated to take the issue up.

The legislative committee heard Tuesday from a pair of groups representing Superior and District Court judges, as well as the North Carolina State Bar and the North Carolina Bar Association. The association said it surveyed judges on Burr's plan, and three-fourths of those who responded said the new districts would have negative consequences.

Judges cited increased travel time and costs, impacts on their workloads and their ability to serve their home counties and the potential to discourage young attorneys, especially women, to seek positions on the bench.

One thing Burr's plan would do is increase the geography some judges are responsible for, opening the door to more multi-county commutes. The plan would also eliminate as many as half the judges in some districts, either by eliminating their seats or putting two sitting judges in the same district, forcing them to run against each other to keep their jobs, Brooks said.

Burr has said changes are needed to rebalance districts not redrawn statewide for 60 years. A number of House Republicans support his plan, though leadership in the state Senate has been cool to it. Both chambers would have to back changes for them to go through.

Democrats fear Republicans, who voted earlier this year to make judicial elections partisan again, are shifting the lines to elect more Republican judges. Burr has said the current lines, largely drawn by Democratic majorities, skew the judiciary too far left and deny people in fast-growing parts of the state equal voting power.

Brooks urged a systematic study before changes are made, something Superior Court Judge Joe Crosswhite echoed in his remarks on behalf of the state's Conference of Superior Court Judges.

Burr said there has been "ample time" for others to propose maps since he rolled his out in June, and he noted that he has met with several groups of judges around the state since then.