Lawmakers on their way to changing judicial districts during candidate filing

Lawmakers on their way to changing judicial districts during candidate filing

The Senate voted along party lines Tuesday night to overturn a partial judicial redistricting bill in an apparent attempt to flex its political muscle at Gov. Roy Cooper.

Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell) told his colleagues it took Cooper 243 hours and 20 minutes to veto Senate Bill 757 and that he (Cooper) wanted to make sure he caused confusion for the election.

“I promise you, he knew the moment it passed the first chamber whether or not he was going to veto this bill,” Hise said. “But instead he wanted to create some chaos. … That’s the way this Governor likes to play, so we’re going to send the message back.”

SB 757 redistricts Superior Courts in Mecklenburg, Pender and New Hanover counties and District Courts in Wake and Mecklenburg counties.

Republicans couldn’t get a consensus on statewide judicial redistricting, so they settled on a few urban areas and claimed the compromise was to fix population disparities in Mecklenburg superior court districts.

Cooper vetoed the bill because “legislative attempts to rig the courts by reducing the people’s vote hurts justice,” he wrote.

“Piecemeal attempts to target judges create unnecessary confusion and show contempt for North Carolina’s judiciary,” the message states.

Sen. Dan Blue

Democratic Leader Sen. Dan Blue drove that point home during a floor debate. He said he agreed with Sen. Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg), a main sponsor of the bill, that Superior Court districts in Mecklenburg County needed to be fixed, but he challenged him to find a problem in any of the other districts affected by SB 757.

“What he has done is put in play a process that’s going to slowly chip away at a system that had been put in place 50 years ago and had ended up being very successful — the District Court system of this state,” Blue said. “You talk about time; it took a dozen years to get that system perfected.”

The District Courts, he added, are where people see the rawest form of justice, many without attorneys and without “fancy arguments.”

Bishop didn’t get a chance to respond to Blue’s challenge, but the only reason he pointed to in his prior argument was the need to cure “an unconstitutional deprivation of voting rights” of “gross population disparities” in Mecklenburg Superior Court districts.

“Abiding that constitutional wrong reduces the people’s vote and hurts justice,” he said, adding that not voting to override the veto shows “contempt for the people.”

Sen. Toby Fitch Jr. (D-Nash) pointed out that some judges the bill would affect have already filed for election under current law. Judicial candidate filing began Monday and runs through June 29.

He said the bill was an attempt to target judges and the Governor was right to veto it because the judiciary should be an independent, co-equal branch of government.

“Once you do this, you piecemeal this whole situation, and all of the people living in a particular jurisdiction will not have a vote for their prospective judiciary or judge holding that particular seat,” he said. “It’s nothing more than another attempt, in my opinion, to attack a fair, consistent court.”

The bill and its potential veto override (which passed 31-14 in the Senate) has already caused confusion among judicial candidates and issues within the election system.

Until Tuesday, judges from Mecklenburg and Wake counties were told a problem with the system would prevent their names from being uploaded to their districts for public record.

Josh Lawson, General Counsel to the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, said — after Policy Watch ran a story about judges’ experiences — that the Statewide Election Information Management System (SEIMS)-related issue had been resolved and the names were added to the system.

But he also said the Board would enact legislation as it would pass, so there are contingency plans for affected candidates. Lawson hasn’t spoken about the specifics, but two judges have.

District Court Judges Louis Meyer in Wake County and Donald Cureton Jr. in Mecklenburg said they both filed in their current districts, which are county-wide, but were told if lawmakers overrode the SB 757 veto, they would have to re-file under new districts.

That means they have to file a notice to withdraw their candidacy and then re-file and pay the same filing fee ($1,167) over again. The old filing fee, they said they were told, would be refunded in four to six weeks.

Meyer called the process of filing Monday “complicated and unfortunate.” Cureton said the process felt like “baptism by fire,” and he is left still feeling confused about what’s going on.

“It definitely has taught me that nothing is for certain, even when it feels that way or when people tell you it’s that way,” Cureton said.

Constitutional and election law experts Rick Hasen, Professor of Law and Political Science at UC Irvine, and Guy-Uriel Charles, founding director of the Duke Law Center on Law, Race and Politics, said they’re not sure if lawmakers have the power to change electoral districts during a can

Gerry Cohen (Photo by WUNC)

didate filing process but that there is “not a per se or constitutional legal rule” that prohibits it.

Veteran General Assembly expert Gerry Cohen, who has had more than 40 years of experience in state and local government in North Carolina, called the whole judicial election filing process and pending bills “a big mess.”

“I think a lot of this is just poor calendar planning by the General Assembly,” he said.

Cohen said there were workarounds lawmakers could have used to make sure the districts were changed before filing began Monday, including passing legislation earlier and/or voting on a veto override earlier.

Sen. Jeff Jackson (D-Mecklenburg) said the plan was “overtly political” and criticized his colleagues for not having the “courage and decency” to involve lots of people in the judicial redistricting process.

“It’s hard to imagine a process of judicial redistricting that would inspire less confidence than this one,” he said.