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Judicial redistricting clears House; GOP wants to cancel 2018 judicial primaries

Posted October 5, 2017 10:06 p.m. EDT
Updated October 5, 2017 10:56 p.m. EDT

— The House approved a statewide redraw of judicial districts Thursday night over objections from Democrats, who called for delay but acknowledged a need for at least some changes.

House Bill 717 passed the chamber 69-43, but it will be likely be months before it moves any further. The Senate, whose leadership has been cool to the House proposal, left town hours before the House finished its debate. Leadership from that chamber said they won't be voting on bills again until January.

The House and the Senate agreed to use another bill to give themselves more time to finalize the matter, doing away with primaries in next year's judicial races. That move came swiftly this week, tacked onto a bill that otherwise eases third-party and unaffiliated candidate ballot access.

The primary change wasn't vetted through the legislature's normal committee process, and the measure cleared both chambers Thursday, the day after the new language became public. Gov. Roy Cooper's office wouldn't say whether a veto is forthcoming, only that the governor would review the bill.

With primaries gone, filing in judicial races moves back to June 2018. Democrats predicted congested, confusing ballots subject to more political machinations than usual, given the lower number of votes needed to win in multi-candidate races. Another section of the bill that pulled the 2018 primaries lowers the threshold needed to avoid runoffs in North Carolina elections from 40 percent of the vote to 30 percent.

Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue warned the GOP majority that they were tugging at the underpinnings of public confidence in the judiciary with all their tinkering.

"You don't suspend filings, and you don't suspend elections, because now people are thinking you're trying to do something sinister," said Blue, D-Wake.

Republicans backing the redistricting bill pointed to the months spent massaging it when Democrats called for a slow down. State Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, shopped the bill in meetings with judges around the state and said Thursday he met with 120 members of the judiciary.

That was after he shocked the judiciary in June, though, by tweeting out a proposed new map during the waning days of a legislative session. A number of changes have been made to the maps since, including a few during lengthy debate on the House floor Thursday.

Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, a former District Court judge, called those amendments "lipstick on a pig."

Others amendments were rejected by the Republican majority, and some black lawmakers said they fear the new maps would elect fewer black judges. Rep. Duane Hall, D-Wake, said this week that 65 percent of black judges in the state have been double-bunked in the plan, meaning they would have to run against another sitting judge to seek re-election.

"This diminishes gains in diversity," Rep. Terry Garrison, D-Vance, said. "(This plan will) greatly diminish the opportunities for African-Americans to be elected judges."

Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, said he doesn't believe the new maps would lead to that sort of retrogression.

"I don't believe that is the purpose of this bill, and I do not believe it will be the effect of this bill in any way," Dollar said.

Democrats have also complained that the new lines were drawn to benefit Republicans and that they're part of an ongoing push to consolidate political power by gerrymandering maps. Burr has said repeatedly he's trying to correct imbalances that Democrats allowed during decades of General Assembly control. His go-to example has been Mecklenburg County, where half the county's population elects five of its seven judges and the other half just two.

Even critics acknowledged that changes are needed in the current maps. House Minority Leader Darren Jackson said there were "some extreme disparities," not only in Mecklenburg County, but in Guilford County as well. Representatives for judicial and prosecutorial groups acknowledged issues as well but called for a deeper dive before new maps are approved. The North Carolina Courts Commission last week backed a delay until next year.

Burr's response at time time: "They continue to show just how irrelevant they are."

This would be the first statewide redraw of these districts since 1967, another thing Burr has hit on time and again in this process.

"To me, it is unacceptable to delay any more than we already have," he said Thursday.