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In 2017, General Assembly turns to courts for reform

By Josh Bergeron
josh.bergeron@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Stung by recent court rulings, Republicans in the N.C. General Assembly have focused this year on the judiciary as a branch of government in need of reform.

Already this year, the state legislature made judicial races partisan and reduced the size of the N.C. Court of Appeals. Last week, the legislature passed a bill that included a provision to eliminate 2018 primaries for judicial races, which legislators say enables the redrawing of judicial district maps next year. Another recently proposed change would shorten the terms of judges in the state to two years.

Moves to alter the judiciary come after many of legislature’s plans for reform have been overturned by the courts. Courts struck down Republican-drawn maps for the N.C. General Assembly and the state’s seats in Congress. A 2013 voter ID law suffered a similar fate.

This week, Gov. Roy Cooper said the legislature appears to be moving toward selecting their own judges for political reasons.

“The legislature is angry that their bad laws continue to be overturned by the courts, and their solution to abolish a scheduled election and once again take away voters’ rights is wrong,” Cooper said in an emailed statement.

Meanwhile, local legislators contend that Cooper supported similar measures when he served in the N.C. General Assembly and that they are making long-overdue changes. For example, Rowan County’s said that judicial redistricting is needed because of shifts in population.

“When you don’t change anything for years and years, it’s like pulling a bandaid off when change comes,” said State Rep. Carl Ford, R-76.

Judicial maps haven’t been examined in decades, and some heavily populated areas contain districts with uneven caseloads and population, said State Rep. Harry Warren, R-77.

In a 72-40 vote on Tuesday, the N.C. House overrode the governor’s veto of Senate Bill 656 — the Electoral Freedom Act of 2017 — originally sponsored by former Sen. Andrew Brock, a Republican whose district included Rowan County.

One day earlier, the Senate did the same.

Brock’s bill included a provision to eliminate 2018 primaries because legislators intend to make further changes next year. Rep. Harry Warren, R-76, said next year’s changes could affect which districts judges run in.

The elimination of primaries for a year, despite receiving criticism from Cooper, was not the bill’s only provision. It also lowered the bar for candidates to get on the ballot and lowered the definition of a plurality from 40 percent to 30 percent.

“The reason I supported the bill is because it will help improve efficiency in the electoral process and will open up the ballot to more people,” Warren said.

Meanwhile, local legislators said they did not have a problem with eliminating party primaries for judicial offices in 2018. They also haven’t objected to previous changes to the state’s judicial system.

All four of Rowan County’s state legislators voted to override Cooper’s veto of S.B. 656. The same occurred with H.B. 100, which made district and superior court races partisan, and H.B. 239, which reduced the size of the Court of Appeals.

In his veto messages, Cooper called H.B. 239 an attempt by a political party to stack the Court of Appeals and H.B. 100 an attempt to place politics in the courtroom.

Asked about Democrats’ objections, Ford said courts have been “rigged” in Democrats’ favor.

Warren said the legislature did not pass bills concerning the judiciary when former Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, was in office because there were more pressing issues to deal with, such as Medicaid and debt. Under Republican rule, the N.C. General Assembly has worked its way down its list of priorities, Warren said.

“You always address the A priority first,” he said.

Sen. Dan Barrett, R-34, filled Brock’s unexpired term in August and voted with the Republican majority last week when the legislature overrode Cooper’s veto of S.B. 656. However, Barrett, an attorney, said he would like to see the reinstatement of a primary once legislators finalize new judicial maps.

“I think our judicial election process benefits from a primary,” he said.

Barrett’s opinion on new judicial maps also differed somewhat from Rowan County’s two members of the N.C. House.

“My goal is to make sure that if we redraw district lines that it leads to the best results in terms of an independent and qualified judiciary,” Barrett said.

So, are state legislators trying to “rig” the judiciary in their favor by redrawing district maps and making other recent changes? Though Democrats disagree, Warren says no.

“Given today’s political landscape, everything seems to be suspect,” he said.

Sen. Tom McInnis, R-25, could not be reached to comment about recent judicial changes.

Contact Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.

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