- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 3, 2018

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina Republicans are trying to agree on new judicial district lines and whether to propose replacing head-to-head elections for judgeships. But it’ll be difficult to get Gov. Roy Cooper and most fellow Democrats to embrace anything that emerges from the Legislative Building on those topics in 2018.

The Senate committee considering broad judicial changes met Wednesday but made decisions that one key senator said mean judicial proposals won’t be taken up during a special session of the General Assembly next week. The next regular legislative work session is set for May.

Approving new judicial election maps sometime this year sounds probable. Whether Republicans can agree on a new judicial selection system - let alone get voters to back it in a constitutional referendum - remains unclear.

“We’re definitely going to have to do something with the maps,” Senate leader Phil Berger told The Associated Press in a recent interview, citing potential constitutional flaws with the current boundaries. “I think it’s still an open question to exactly what if anything we’ll do with judicial selection.”

House Speaker Tim Moore said in a release before Wednesday’s Senate committee that his chamber was “prepared to take up final passage at any time” of a judicial redistricting plan.

Instead, committee members voted to ask Berger to work with Moore to create a new panel of lawmakers to find consensus on judicial redistricting and selection changes.

“There’s a lot of work to be done and we want it done honestly in a bipartisan way,” said Sen. Bill Rabon, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee.

Republicans have a lot of convincing to do to sway Democratic lawmakers, who have opposed judicial alterations at every turn. They accused Republicans of partisan and racial gerrymandering election boundaries for trial court judges approved by the House in October. They say the GOP is unhappy with recent rulings by Democratic judges against Republican laws.

Cooper suggested in an interview last month that he’ll oppose any judicial changes proposed by Republicans at least until they no longer have a veto-proof majority in the General Assembly. He said GOP laws that made all judicial elections officially partisan and reduced the number of Court of Appeals judges demonstrate their intentions to make the courts more Republican.

“What we have right now is a supermajority that does whatever it wants, and that’s not a good atmosphere to make changes in the judiciary, particularly when what they have done has been to inject more politics in the judiciary,” Cooper told the AP before the holidays. Democrats are banking on ending these veto-proof majorities in November’s election.

Although Republicans have the votes to pass whatever judicial changes they wish, Democratic opposition could remain an obstacle.

Three House Republicans voted against their judicial redistricting plan in October, so some may have to be persuaded to change their votes to override a Cooper veto. And replacing judicial elections with another form of selection would require voters to approve changes to the state constitution in a referendum. Active opposition by Cooper and other Democrats could sink that.

“It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a hard sell,” Rabon said. “It’s going to take both parties to do it.”

Cooper said that, if offered, he still wouldn’t support a “merit selection” plan similar to what he voted for while in the state Senate in the 1990s because he thinks Republicans are acting hastily. The proposal would subject a governor’s appointees to appeals court posts to legislative confirmation, followed by an up-or-down retention election.

The allegations flummox Republicans, who point out the Senate committee held nearly 20 hours of hearings since November. Cooper and other Democrats haven’t offered alternate proposals.

“We can’t force people to come to the table,” said Republican Sen. Paul Newton of Cabarrus County, suggesting that Democrats are purposefully staying out of the debate so they can challenge new maps or selection in court. “I see a strategy that is going to lead to litigation.”

Sen. Floyd McKissick of Durham County said that, given recent GOP laws, there’s some healthy skepticism about whether the committee meetings were a genuine effort at judicial reform. He left open the possibility of building consensus.

“We still have the opportunity to work together in a collaborative way,” McKissick said.


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