State Politics

Are NC lawmakers moving toward abandoning election of judges and overhauling courts?

NC lawmakers are weighing changes to the court system.
NC lawmakers are weighing changes to the court system. File photo

Two and a half months after his surprise release of a plan to redraw districts used to elect North Carolina judges and district attorneys, state Rep. Justin Burr opened a meeting related to his proposal on Tuesday with more discussion about changing how judges are chosen than about the first sweeping overhaul of the judicial maps in 62 years.

Two speakers at the meeting gave a history lesson on the state’s court system.

James Drennan, a former head of the administrative office of the courts and professor at the UNC School of Government, provided an overview of North Carolina’s courts from 1776 on – from colonial courts, to early statehood and establishment of the state Supreme Court in 1818 to justices of the peace and the system that Burr proposes to change.

That last massive overhaul was in 1955, Drennan said, with tweaks and adjustments in the 62 years that have followed.

In recent years, there has been a sharpened political focus on the courts in North Carolina. Republican lawmakers who’ve tried to move the state sharply to the political right have seen the state and federal courts strike down key provisions of their agenda.

This year, the lawmakers made all judicial elections, from the district courts that handle traffic infractions and family-court matters, to the state’s highest court, partisan again. They were nonpartisan from the 1990s until this year when the Republican-led General Assembly changed the law, saying that a judge’s party affiliation was information that would help voters make a more informed decision on their ballot. Critics said the change would unduly politicize courts that were established to be checks and balances on the legislative branch.

Since meeting criticism for rolling out the new lines for judicial and prosecutorial districts without involving judges, prosecutors and others from the court system in the process, Burr said he has been traveling the state explaining his plans and listening to concerns. The Stanly County Republican released updated versions of his maps Tuesday.

While Burr has been on his journey, Jim Blaine, chief of staff for Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, has been on a different path, seeking input from judges and others on ending the current model for electing judges and replacing it with a system in which a few select who goes on the bench.

That’s an idea North Carolina’s Chief Justice Mark Martin, a Republican, has been promoting. Martin told attorneys and others at an N.C. Bar Association meeting in June that he planned to ask lawmakers to give voters an opportunity to decide whether the state should continue electing judges or move to an appointment process.

At the meeting on Tuesday, Drennan described models used in other states and noted the tension between having an independent judiciary and making judges accountable to the public. He relayed a conversation from a cocktail party in which one person asked how to create a merit-based selection system that also held judges accountable to the public.

“’There ain’t no easy way to do it because every system has strengths and weaknesses,’” Drennan said the person responded. “The bottom line: There is a tension between accountability and independence.”

Marion Warren, the current head of the administrative office of the courts, gave a presentation focused on the office and its role in overseeing the system of judges, clerks and district attorney offices.

In response to lawmakers’ questions, Warren said the administrative office did not have a hand in the drawing of the maps that Burr released on Tuesday. The administrative office also provided lawmakers with information about the number of judges in districts, work flow and when terms for current judges expire.

Rep. Marcia Morey, a former district court judge from Durham and a new Democrat in the state House, asked Warren what feedback he has received from judges about the redistricting plan. Morey said she has spoken with people in 20 districts across the state and had not encountered anyone who supports the proposal.

“I think if you dig into that original (House Bill) 717 map, you’ll find that there are winners and there are losers, and some of the folks that consider themselves winners may share, they may say something that goes along the lines of this, ‘Judge Warren, I’m good with that map, I just can’t say anything about it,’” Warren said in response to Morey.

“And then there’s folks that consider themselves losers, for a myriad of reasons; they call and say, ‘Why aren’t you doing something about it.’ That’s the two spectrums at the two ends of the conversations that I’m having with folks across the state in the judicial branch.”

Burr said there will be more meetings on the maps this month with the judicial redistricting committee. The General Assembly has a session scheduled for early October. Burr said there could be consideration of the maps and changing to a judicial appointment process then.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1

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