By Marcia Morey
September 11, 2017
After 18 years serving the public in Durham as a judge, I left the bench in April and took a giant leap into the lion’s den of the legislature. While I understood that my new role as a member of the N.C. House would be in a highly charged political environment compared to my nonpartisan role as a judge, I did not anticipate this year’s systematic attack on the independence of North Carolina’s judiciary.
Bill by bill, Republican legislators ultimately passed numerous laws that served to undermine justice and politicize the judiciary, a branch of our government that has been enshrined in impartiality and a commitment to fairness since our nation’s founding.
But the biggest threat of all to our independent judiciary is around the corner, , and if Paul Revere were on horseback, he would be sounding the alarm across the state: “Judicial redistricting is coming!”
With less than 48 hours notice, House Bill 717 was introduced by Rep. Justin Burr (R) in June. Burr, a bail bondsman from Stanley and Montgomery Counties, has made it his personal mission to introduce this and other bills to destabilize and redefine the judiciary. In a committee hearing room that allowed fewer than 30 people to attend, new judicial maps were tossed out among legislators that divided district and superior court districts into smaller irregular areas, with obvious partisan advantages.
This means incumbent, experienced judges will be forced to run against each other. Newly drawn open seats will be a feeding frenzy for inexperienced lawyers, and in some cases Superior Court judges will drive over 440 miles roundtrip to a courtroom. Countywide elections in urban districts will be split where voters will have no ability to vote for judges who have jurisdiction over them.
The proposed judicial maps are as racially and politically gerrymandered as were the legislative maps. If passed, more litigation is sure to come.
When Rep. Burr was asked if judges or the State Bar or the Administrative Office of the Courts or law schools had been consulted about his redistricting plan in the committee meeting, he responded, “No, I am the legislator. I make the laws.” [HB 717 was passed in committee along partisan lines but pulled from the House calendar for a final vote.]
But until there is a deliberative, inclusive process, that involves lawyers, judges, law schools and lawmakers and especially the public, transforming our system of justice should not be done by a partisan rush job. The answer is a careful study of workloads and resources and access to justice.