Courts & the Law, News

House Republicans, Democrats face off over changes to judiciary

House lawmakers passed three bills Thursday that will greatly affect the judiciary. The courts had no say in the matters.

“We didn’t consult with the courts; we are the policy makers,” said Rep. Justin Burr (R-Montgomery, Stanly), who is a sponsor of each of the three bills.

House Bill 239 would reduce the size of the current state Court of Appeals from 15 to 12 judges, preventing Gov. Roy Cooper from filling upcoming vacancies. House Bills 240 and 241 take appointment power away from Cooper and gives it to the General Assembly for District Court judicial vacancies and special Superior Court judgeships.

Democrats expressed concern on the House floor about the bills’ lack of vetting. They said there weren’t any  requests from stakeholders to modify the judiciary and they were worried about the political motivation behind dabbling with an independent branch of government.

Republicans criticized Democrats for expanding the court unnecessarily in 2000, and Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry, Wilkes) alluded to a bigger plan to eventually expand the state Supreme Court.

Part of HB239 would allow class action certification appeals to bypass the Court of Appeals and go directly to the state Supreme Court, reducing some of the caseload on appellate judges.

“The Supreme Court doesn’t have enough work to do, so by cutting back on some of the Court of Appeals work, we’re going to continue to send more cases directly to the Supreme Court,” Stevens said. “You may see us back here adding more to the Supreme Court load next year or the year after for that very reason. We are trying to equalize the loads between the two.”

During a whirlwind of special sessions in December, there were rumors that the General Assembly would try to pack the state Supreme Court by adding justices to counter Democrat Mike Morgan’s election to the bench. The justice’s election swung the court to 4-3 Democratic control.

The Court of Appeals currently has an 11-4 Republican majority but three Republicans are approaching mandatory retirement, which will mean Cooper could appoint to fill their vacancies.

Democratic Leader Rep. Darren Jackson said the political motivation behind adjusting the judiciary was obvious. He said there was no formal study or workload analysis to justify the reduction in judges and introduced a motion to send the bill back to a committee for further study — the motion failed.

Lawmakers also argued about the appointment power that is supposed to fall to Cooper. Rep. Henry Michaux Jr. (D-Durham) said the bills, if passed, would surely lead to more litigation.

Two Democrats tried to introduce compromise amendments to give appointment powers to chief judges, instead of the General Assembly or the governor, but both efforts failed.

Jackson tweeted after the session, “Days like today when u have 2 sit & watch your profession take it on chin for partisan reasons, just sucks. We are destroying our [court] system.”

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