The Joint Legislative Committee on Judicial Redistricting and Reform met for the second time yesterday. For a large part of the meeting, they heard Administrative Office of the Courts’ reports on work load in judicial districts, how long do certain cases take, what kind of cases are heard in different districts. This is good data to have when looking how to best distribute resources fairly and equitably to ensure access to a fair and just judicial system. They also saw new proposed maps. Questions from both sides seemed to almost have been drawn by legal teams in preparation for a future legal case.
As they continue their work, it is important to focus on how best to ensure access to justice across the state – not what’s convenient for judges or fits the Bar Association priorities or protects sitting judges or favors certain candidates but how best to administer justice and ensure availability to every citizen in NC. It’s good to take the time to gather the data, study and debate ideas. So what’s the rush?
The state’s judicial districts were last considered as a whole in the 1960s. Although tweaks have been made over the years to some districts, the whole map has not been evaluated for 58 years. With demographic and population changes in NC, it’s certainly time to take a comprehensive look. Fairness and integrity in our judicial system is a reason for a speedy resolution.
But there may also be political reasons to re-draw the maps now. At least for Republicans. According to our state constitution, the governor does not have veto power over three types of bills; local bills, constitutional amendments and redistricting bills. But the veto restriction on redistricting bills applies to legislative and congressional redistricting bills – not judicial. Right now with Republicans holding super-majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, overriding a gubernatorial veto is pretty easy for a consolidated Republican block of votes. If the 2018 election cycle turns out to be a bad one for the party of the President in the first mid-term election of his administration, as many predict, the Republicans’ majority stronghold on the legislature may be at risk. And without a veto proof majority vote, the best and perhaps only chance to get judicial redistricting bill passed into law is before the 2018 election cycle. The 2018 short session or perhaps a special session may be their only chance to make changes to the maps that democrats drew and have controlled for 58 years.
Discussion during the first meeting, raised accusations of racial gerrymandering in drawing of the maps. Republicans brushed aside any accusations that race was used at all as a criteria in the maps they presented. The question was asked if the judicial redistricting fell under the Voting Rights Act. The professional staff reported that yes, Sec 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act did apply but no one was able to say how.
There have not been many federal court cases raising Sec 2 claims. How the law applies to judicial elections is even more murky than it is with legislative elections, because not many states have judicial elections like we do. The law is unclear. Democrats have developed a pattern of claiming racial discrimination; advocacy groups follow with lawsuits under the Voting Rights Act. Given North Carolina’s extensive litigation involving redistricting, the committee would be wise and prudent to review the legal history and make a good faith effort to comply with whatever the standard seems to be. rather than leaving it to the courts to sort it out – at taxpayers’ expense.
Kudos to the Committee for taking the time to take a good look, ask hard questions to ensure access to justice for all; thanks to Rep. Justin Burr and Sen Paul Newton for the hard work they have put into developing proposed maps and ideas for a merit selection process for judges. Let’s put politics aside and take the necessary steps to make sure we get it right.