As North Carolina’s short legislative session begins May 16, some legislators say they are working to pass bills that would substantially change how the judiciary works.
While the priority of the session appears to be making technical corrections and passing a state budget from the previous long session, crossover bills and constitutional amendments are also still on the table.
There are at least three bills that would impact how judges are appointed in the state, and one concerning the first judicial redistricting in the state in decades.
“I’m not sure that lawyers throughout the state appreciate the great extent to which the judicial branch has already been affected by these bills that have passed,” said Rep. Joe John, D-Wake County, said. A freshman representative, John served as a judge for 25 years
John, who served as a District, Superior Court and N.C. Court of Appeals judge, cited Session Law 2017-7 which shrinks the size of the NC Court of Appeals from 15 judges to 12 and S.L. 2017-3 which makes it so that superior court and district court judicial elections are partisan.
“Partisanship is the antithesis of the qualities we look for in any judge,” John said. “That bill makes us the first state in the country to go back to a partisan judicial system.”
Rep. Dana Bumgardner, R-Gastonia, explained the changes differently.
“If judges are going to legislate from the bench, they must run that way,” Bumgardner said. From his perspective, allowing judges to run as political entities lets voters know where they stand on political issues that might come up in court.
“The number one question I get is, ‘Who do I vote for for judge?’ And I figure some information is better than none,” he said.
On the matter of judicial redistricting, Bumgardner said it’s time for a change.
“[Judicial] redistricting has not been done since the 1950s,” he said. “Some [districts] are imbalanced, with 350,000 residents, when nearby you have another with 150,000. We’re just trying to balance things out.”
Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly County, introduced House Bill 717 during the long session. The bill passed in a 69-43 vote, mostly along party lines, in October. It is currently set to be heard by the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate.
Burr did not respond to requests for comment, but he told the Associated Press in April that the redistricting process has been put off for too long.
“This has been kicked down the road long enough,” he said.
John said that while it’s fair to say that the populations in most districts have changed and require adjustments, he feels his Republican colleagues are using the opportunity to address partisan interests.
“The purpose appears to be to elect more Republican judges,” he said.
Burr, who lost a primary election May 8 to challenger Wayne Sasser and won’t be returning after the short session, has said that claims of gerrymandering are not supported by facts and that Democrats have been given ample opportunity throughout the process to present alternate redistricting plans.
House Bills 240, 241 and 335 all deal with how judicial appointments are made.
H.B. 240 and H.B. 241, which both passed the House and are in the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate, strip the governor of the power to appoint District Court and Special Superior Court Judges and gives it to the General Assembly.
H.B. 335, which also is waiting to be heard by the Senate rules committee, would limit how the governor makes appointments to fill midterm vacancies for the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals, the Superior Court and District Attorney positions. If passed, the bill would require the governor to choose from three candidates recommended by state and local executive committees of the same political party as the person who left.
Burr told the Associated Press that the laws would bring more transparency to how judges are picked, allowing for greater public input, transparency and accountability.
Bumgardner said that the bills are all about improving the judicial system.
“We’re trying to bring clarity to the process,” he said.
John again disagreed.
“These are clear attempts to reduce and take away appointment power of the governor,” he said. “The only explanation is partisanship.”
Apart from judicial redistricting and appointments, there’s a whole host of other judiciary issues that are still on the table during the upcoming session.
-Senate Bill 698, which hasn’t passed either the House or Senate, would amend the state constitution to limit all judicial terms to two years. While John said the bill seems unlikely to pass, he wouldn’t rule it out entirely.
“That did not seem to generate any support from anywhere, but that doesn’t mean that it may not reappear and we may have to vote on it,” he said.
-H.B. 160, which passed the House unanimously, would restrict judges who were removed from office from receiving retirement benefits.
-H.B. 677, which passed in a mostly partisan House vote, makes it so that District Court judges can be appointed to serve on three-judge panels for actions challenging the validity of General Assembly Acts.
-H.B. 706, which passed the House in a 90-28 vote, would allow attorneys to sever eviction and monetary claims when lawsuits only meet eviction standards.
-H.B. 325, which passed the House unanimously, would strengthen criminal law concerning arson by creating a new offense for fires purposely set which injure law enforcement or fire officials.