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More dialogue, fewer theatrics needed in judicial debate

RALEIGH — For the second time in as many years, Senate Democrats walked out on their Republican colleagues and left them to conduct legislative business by themselves.

The first time they did it was in March 2016, when the Senate prepared to vote on House Bill 2 just hours after the “bathroom bill” was first made public. The Democrats objected to the process and declined to cast their votes. It happened again last week during a committee meeting on judicial redistricting.

The meeting agenda called for comments from a “representative from the governor’s office.” When it turned out that Gov. Roy Cooper had sent retired Judge Don Stephens — an outspoken critic of proposed judicial changes — Sen. Dan Bishop, R-Mecklenburg, refused to let him speak. Bishop said Cooper should have sent someone from his staff.

The three Democratic senators at the meeting stormed out and sent out a press release that said “this isn’t a democratic process, this is a farce. Therefore, there was no reason for us to attend today’s committee meeting.” Senate leader Phil Berger called the move a “political stunt” showing that Democrats “will do anything to preserve North Carolina’s existing, unconstitutional judicial system for the benefit of their political party.”

The committee’s fireworks were entirely unnecessary. If you invite the governor to send someone to speak on his behalf, he’s entitled to send whoever he likes.

By sending Stephens, Cooper was making a statement that he wants judges to have a major role in deciding how judges are selected. Silencing Stephens sends a bad message to the state’s judiciary, undercutting the efforts Republicans have made so far to meet with judges and get their feedback. The move, however, wasn’t surprising coming from Bishop, who’s a Trump-like figure known for brash statements on Twitter.

So why do Republicans dislike Stephens? Berger’s top aide, chief of staff Jim Blaine, spelled it out on Twitter: Stephens has ruled against the legislature in several lawsuits brought by Democrats, so the GOP views him as a partisan figure. Blaine also accused Cooper of using Stephens to avoid making an official statement himself on the judicial overhaul proposals.

If Cooper wants to show how important this issue is, he should consider coming to the legislature himself and speaking to the committee. The governor doesn’t have much power to stop the proposed changes, but he does have the bully pulpit. A debate between Cooper and Bishop would be fascinating to watch.

That, however, would require Cooper to be more specific about his views. So far, he’s issued statements criticizing proposed changes as an effort to “rig the courts” in favor of Republicans, but he also hasn’t said the current system is perfect.

Experts have said there are constitutional problems with the current District Court and Superior Court districts that House Republicans want to redraw. If the redistricting approach continues to move forward, there’s room for Democrats to propose alternatives to districts they worry will give Republicans an unfair advantage.

As for the other approach being considered — replacing judicial elections with some form of appointment process — there are still no specific proposals on the table.

The Senate committee reviewing the issue has heard several presentations from experts on the topic, but no plans have emerged with just a few weeks to go before the January special session on judicial redistricting.

Last-minute sneakiness is always a possibility at the legislature, but the Senate has now released a set of maps tweaking the House judicial redistricting proposal — so there’s a decent chance that’s what will be on the agenda next month.

The latest acrimony on the Senate committee means a bipartisan compromise is unlikely. And while Republicans don’t want to hear from Judge Stephens, they did put a link to submit public comment on the legislature’s website at ncleg.net. So take a few minutes and give them your opinion — but maybe don’t tell them your party affiliation if you’re a Democrat.

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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