- Associated Press - Monday, June 26, 2017

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina House Republicans pressed ahead Monday with legislation redrawing electoral boundaries for trial court judges and district attorneys that its author said was months in the making but surfaced with the days left in this year’s session quickly dwindling.

The updated maps for Superior Court, District Court and prosecutors’ districts, combined with the lack of formal input by judicial groups, only raised misgivings among Democrats that the altered boundaries are designed largely to benefit Republicans. Recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court upholding lower federal court decisions striking down legislative and congressional districts drawn by Republican legislators in 2011 as illegal racial gerrymanders fueled their suspicions.

“They’re trying to rig the courts because they’ve lost,” Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper told reporters earlier Monday. “This is an attempt to threaten the judiciary and to rig the judiciary in their favor.”

The bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Justin Burr of Stanly County, defended the maps as a way to make districts more uniform statewide and more equitable by population, geography and judicial caseloads, but acknowledged they could benefit Republican judicial candidates. He said there hasn’t been a wholesale change in boundaries in decades, when Democrats were in charge of state government.

The changes could be more pronounced going forward. Trial court races turned nonpartisan beginning in the 1990s but a new law reverts them to officially partisan affairs in 2018. Local prosecutors continue to be elected in partisan races.

“When you go from the maps that were drawn by Democrats, which were done to give them a partisan advantage over Republicans … perhaps it makes you feel like it’s giving Republicans a partisan advantage when it’s really putting us on a level-playing field,” Burr told a House judiciary committee.

The panel voted 7-5 along party lines to recommend the bill to full House. The measure would still have to pass the Senate. Unlike other redistricting measures, the judicial district changes would be subject to Cooper’s gubernatorial veto.

Burr pointed to Mecklenburg County, where he said the current Superior Court districts are populated so that half of the county is voting for just two of the county’s seven court judges. In the bill, two Mecklenburg districts largely equitable by population would elect four judges. Other urban counties would also receive additional judgeships.

As for District Court, voters in Mecklenburg County currently vote for more than 20 judges. The proposal would create two District Court districts in the county - one with 10 judges and the other with 11 judges.

House Minority Leader Darren Jackson of Wake County questioned why two Superior Court districts would be created in Buncombe and Pitt counties, where the electorate generally favors Democrats and split districts could benefit Republicans. At the same time, Jackson said, GOP-leaning Johnston and Alamance counties, which like Pitt and Buncombe has two Superior Court judges, would be untouched.

Counties in a handful of multi-county prosecutorial districts would be moved around. For example, Hoke and Scotland counties are currently represented by one DA. But the new map would join Scotland with Robeson County and Hoke with Moore counties. The bill would allow current judges and DAs to serve out in full their current terms.

Other current and former judges urged the committee to delay action on such a wide-ranging measure and study how the changes could hurt the administration of justice.

“We would ask that this bill be tabled,” Superior Court Judge Wayland Sermons of Beaufort County told the committee, adding the measure would place additional work burdens upon judges in northeastern North Carolina. “It’s not ready, it needs cooking.”


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