A controversial and last-ditch effort to overhaul the state’s judicial maps before the legislative session ends generated fierce debate at a committee hearing Monday, but passed and is headed to the House floor for debate.
The Republican proposal, sponsored by Representative Justin Burr of Stanly, would fundamentally alter the state’s existing judicial districts by redrawing prosecutorial districts as well as district and superior court lines—an effort critics say is a transparent attempt to stack the bench with Republican judges and an attack on the judicial branch. They also expressed concern that the bill was drafted without consulting key stakeholders for input, including judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys.
“I believe it’s partisan gerrymandering, and it’s based on the majority party trying to get an edge in terms of the judges in the state of North Carolina. I do not feel like we should be interfering with the judicial system this way,” Representative Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson, told the INDY. “This weekend, my phone was off the hook. Judges are very upset about this. People in the community are concerned and they feel like they haven’t had the chance to have any input. They feel like the process should be slowed down, looked at, and get all the stakeholders’ input before something this important is changed.”
Farmer-Butterfield says her constituents are concerned about an overhaul to the districts in place. Pitt County recently elected its first female African-American judge in the county’s history, she said. “I’ve heard from [constituents] and they’re very upset. They don’t want this change.”
Duane Hall, a Wake County Democrat, predicted that the new lines would result in 14 districts that would likely elect Democrats compared to 41 Republicans at the district court level, and a 12–45 GOP advantage at the superior court level.
“This is a major, major piece of legislation,” Hall said. “I’ve gotten over two hundred and fifty calls today about this. I take this extremely seriously. This is racial gerrymandering.”
Other Democratic representatives were quick to point to the measure’s potentially racial and partisan impacts. House Democratic leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake, noted that one of the map’s judicial districts, 22B, appeared very similar to a legislative district recently struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court as a racial gerrymander. Democrat Graig Meyer of Orange County wondered if the judicial maps meet the standards of the Voting Rights Act. (Burr said he thought so.)
“There’s clearly some reason these lines are as squiggly as they are,” Representative Grier Martin, D-Wake, added. “You claim that it was not based on racial data. What then, was the main factor? Partisan advantage? Or some other factor?”
“A number of other factors,” Burr responded. He later repeated one of his most common answers: "This is a multipronged process."
Burr also bristled in response to accusations of gerrymandering, arguing that the maps were drawn decades ago under Democratic rule and subsequently tweaked whenever a Republican judge was elected. As an example, he pointed to Mecklenburg County, where, thanks to district lines, around half of the population could elect two of the county's seven judges. His bill, he said, was righting years of inequity and “correcting gerrymandering. We are fixing problems of the past!”
But the bill’s opponents—including the watchdog
“Maybe the U.S. Supreme Court wasn’t clear when the nation’s highest court told you to redraw our state’s gerrymandered maps. You told the public you were too busy with the budget to redraw unconstitutional legislative districts. Instead, you are embarking on the biggest challenge of our judiciary in over fifty years—done in secret, behind closed doors, and without public input,” said Melissa Price Kromm of North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections during the bill’s public comments. “You’re crippling the courts, punishing the people of North Carolina, just to grease the wheels of partisan politics. This needs to have full and public input.”The bill passed out of committee 7–5 along party lines.