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Colin Campbell: Take time with judicial tinkering

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Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service.

 

RALEIGH — While legislative and congressional districts are redrawn every 10 years to match population changes — so everyone’s vote counts equally — North Carolina’s judicial districts haven’t been redrawn in decades. Five of them haven’t changed since 1965.

Still, Rep. Justin Burr caught many people by surprise when he unveiled new proposed maps on Twitter in the hectic final days of the legislative session in June. He’s faced opposition from Democrats who worry the new districts will be gerrymandered to benefit Republican judges. And he’s heard outcry from judges and attorneys who worry that a hasty overhaul will have unintended consequences.

But Burr does deserve credit for bringing the issue up, and it’s hard to argue that the status quo should stay in place for a few more decades. The current district map is a wacky patchwork of minor tweaks made over the years. The result is that some districts have far more residents than others, which means that some voters have more influence over who sits on the bench in their county.

It’s not a sexy issue, though, and the average citizen might be wondering why they should care. Most of us are fortunate enough not to have many interactions with the court system, and as long as judges face some accountability from voters, one might assume they’re qualified to administer the law.

But I’m not sure the current districts offer enough accountability. In larger counties where a single district has a dozen or more judges, voters can hardly be expected to research them all come election time. Incumbency and political party endorsements tend to be much bigger factors in determining winners than credentials and effectiveness.

Then there’s the role that judges play in state politics. Lawsuits challenging state laws are heard by a three-judge panel of Superior Court judges from around the state. Those panels are often the first to decide on requests to delay controversial actions by the legislature. So if the judicial districts are drawn to favor one political party, those panels might be biased in favor of that party’s position.

Within the coming weeks, an N.C. House committee is expected to vote on a revised proposal from Burr, and he wants the entire House to take action in October. You should take time to check out the proposed district in which you live — see if there’s an excessive partisan tilt and if the district is big enough to have plenty of qualified attorneys living inside the boundaries. If it doesn’t seem right, call your legislator and weigh in. If this overhaul passes, it could be another 30 years before the legislature revisits the issue.

Burr likely wants to rush his proposal through the House because the longer it gets delayed, the more opposition could mount. He’s been traveling the state to gather input from judges, but he’s dismissed some of it as not a “legitimate concern.” It should be a concern that Burr, a bail bondsman by trade, seems to be solely in charge of drafting the new maps. It’s a complicated process that would benefit from having judges and attorneys at the drawing board.

For their part, judges’ and attorneys’ groups are begging lawmakers to take their time, and they’ve asked for the final votes to be delayed until next year. That would also allow time for legislators to consider an entirely different option for overhauling the legal system: Appointing judges instead of electing them.

That’s an idea supported by N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin. It seems to be garnering interest from state Senate leader Phil Berger, whose chief of staff has been meeting with judges to discuss the possibility. That change could make the selection of judges more focused on a candidate’s qualifications, but it could also put the legislature in charge of picking judges — something that could put partisan considerations front and center.

It’s a complicated issue with a long list of possible solutions. It’s not a task that’s well suited to the legislature’s “jam it through and hope for the best” style of lawmaking.

 

 

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.

 

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