01/10/18 — County voters go to Raleigh as session begins

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County voters go to Raleigh as session begins

By Melinda Harrell
Published in News on January 10, 2018 5:50 AM

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Lobbyist Melissa Price-Krom, director of the Voters for Clean Elections, speaks during the Fair Courts NC Town Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 2.

Wayne County voters are expected to go to Raleigh today to express their concerns about the ongoing judiciary changes being proposed at the General Assembly.

Wayne County Democratic Party Chairperson Barbara D'Antonio said there will be around 10 people from Wayne County and nearly 200 people across the state attending the Fair Courts Day of Action at Bicentennial Plaza.

The day of action will include a press conference and teach-in, and people participating in the event also hope to talk to legislators about their resistance to the judicial changes that are under consideration at the opening of the General Assembly's special session.

Those proposals include judiciary map changes -- there is a House proposal and a Senate one -- as well as a proposal suggesting shorter term limits for judges and an anticipated merit selection issue.

Support for the day of action was rallied locally during the Fair Courts NC town hall last week, which was sponsored by Democracy N.C., Progress N.C., N.C. NAACP and Voters for Clean Elections.

Lobbyist Melissa Price-Kromm with Voters for Clean Elections presented a crowd of nearly 40 people attending the town hall with what some of those changes to the judiciary electoral system are.

Price-Kromm criticized the pending legislation -- and bills that have already passed which make the judicial races partisan -- as a grab for more power on the part of the Republican-led legislature, citing the election of Mike Morgan to the state's Supreme Court bench as the catalyst.

"So we come to this year, and we see a plethora of anti-court bills," she said.

"Now, when you go vote you will see a 'D' or an 'R' next to (the candidates' names). Judges are not partisan beings. We do not look at them as Democrat or Republican, and they don't base their decisions on whether they are Democrat or Republican. Their job is to look at the law and make decisions based on the law. Cooper vetoed this bill, but it was overturned."

Price-Kromm said the courts are also "under attack" because of the various rulings against the legislation that the General Assembly has passed.

"Not one branch of government has all the power, so our courts have stepped in and said, 'No, that is not OK.' Well, now our courts are under attack because they are protecting us, and now we have to turn around, and we have to protect our courts," she said.

She also questioned whether the current General Assembly could be trusted to redraw the judiciary maps.

"This legislature doesn't have a great track record with gerrymandering, as we have seen from our legislative districts," she said.


Both the House and Senate have released judiciary map proposals in 2016.

The most recent -- and most contentious, locally -- map has been released by the Senate Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting. Local district judges attended the Fair Courts NC town hall and criticized the Senate maps that would, should they be passed, remove Lenoir County from the district it shares with Wayne County. Judges Ericka James, David Brantley and Charles Gaylor III expressed concern over these maps and the process by which they were drafted.

"I am going to speak for myself, this is not the way judicial redistricting should be done," Brantley said.

"There is a legislative committee, a process -- it shouldn't happen overnight by a group of senators."

In an effort to call for more transparency, advocacy group Progress N.C. filed an open records request for the public comments submitted to the committee last Friday. On Tuesday, the group in a press release said senators had not yet released the comments and "it's critical for these comments to be made public before the session begins (today) so lawmakers cannot simply ignore them like they have done in the past."

The House's judiciary maps proposal went through a more inclusive and longer process, said Rep. John Bell, R-Dist. 10.

Bell said, for the House maps, he had been in contact with "all of our district court judges and superior court judges to listen to their concerns."

But that process did not begin without a hiccup.

At the town hall, James said she found out about the judiciary district changes through a tweet.

"I can tell you none of the judges were consulted when this first came out," she said.

"We found out about it, judicial redistricting, it was in a tweet. That is how judges found out this major legislation was being considered."

It was after that initial tweet that Burr launched a campaign to get public input for the proposal.

"I'll be honest with you, Rep. (Justin) Burr worked for six and seven months on that and adjusted the maps accordingly and felt that was the proper way to do it," Bell said.

"I worked close with Burr because I had a lot of concerns."

Bell said that in the end, he was satisfied with the House's version of the judiciary map changes.

Bell is currently opposed to the proposed Senate maps.

"I am not in support of the Senate maps at all," he said.

"I can't support that. This process has a long way to go."

Sen. Don Davis, D-Dist. 5, said the Senate district maps were not done in a way that was conducive to public input, which he believes was a step that should have been taken, saying the whole process has been "riddled with a level of secrecy."

"We saw the House maps released on Twitter," Davis said, "and truly acknowledge later efforts were made to be more inclusive. Rep. Burr went around the state talking to various judges. The Senate falls into a dangerous spot and didn't learn what happened with Rep. Burr. I believe that it is incredibly important to hear from judges, the legal community and residents in this process."

Sen. Louis Pate, R-Dist. 7, said he would keep an "open mind" about the proposal from the Senate.

"We haven't studied it that carefully," Pate said.

"I would hesitate to say, I don't know what my position would be right now. We are meeting with people in the judiciary and having discussions with them and getting as much information as we can."

D'Antonio said the redrawing of the judiciary maps is "unnecessary."

"They are double-bunking judges in the same districts and making women and African-Americans run against each other," she said.


Merit selection of judges could also be under consideration.

Price-Kromm said this proposal would boil down to the legislature "cherry picking" judges to serve on the bench instead of the voters deciding.

"In order for them to take away that power, is they would have to go to the voters," she said.

"And the thought process is they would slide it into the primaries this May. It would have vague language, like 'meritorious selection' and you would be asked to give up your right to choose judges."

Merit selection is used in other states across the country in varying ways. In some states the governor appoints judges based on a nomination commission's recommendation, some by legislative appointment and some are a hybrid of the two options.

"You don't want to give up your right to vote for judges," she said.

"And you definitely don't want to give it to our current legislature that is racially gerrymandered into a super majority."

As for the Wayne County delegation, Bell and Davis have shown little support for such a proposal.

"I personally have some concerns there and need to learn a lot more about it," Bell said.

"There are a number of concerns that I have before I become a yes vote. My biggest concern is that you take the vote away from the people."

Davis was equally critical of merit selection.

"At the end of the day, what we have to think through here with these different proposals, like merit selection, we are seeing them roll out of the Senate, they are ways to take away the residents' ability to vote for our judges," Davis said.

"Right now, I think it is important to allow residents to weigh in on the process."