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N.C. House expected to vote today to reduce Court of Appeals judges, take appointment power from Cooper

In another display of power grabbing, the N.C. House will take up three bills today that would reduce the size of the state’s appellate court and take away judicial appointments from Gov. Roy Cooper.

The bills were passed in a House judiciary committee Wednesday in a 7-6 vote along party lines. Rep. Justin Burr (R-Montgomery, Stanly) introduced all three of the bills.

He faced questions from Democrats about his motives and said he’d long been working on making changes to the judiciary.

“It’s simply a matter of pushing for a process I believe is better,” he said.

House Bill 239 would reduce the size of the current state Court of Appeals from 15 to 12 judges, preventing Cooper from filling upcoming vacancies. It comes as three Republican judges on the court near mandatory retirement.

Former Appellate Court Judge Martha Geer, a Democrat who stepped down in May, spoke against the bill during the public comments. She expressed concern that legislators had not spoken with the chief judge about their changes.

“This will impact the citizens,” she said.

She said there has been a growing workload and backlog at the court and that reducing judges will surely add to current delays.

A recent study shows that each judge on the Court of Appeals writes more than 100 opinions per year. By contrast, state Supreme Court justices wrote an average of six opinions per year in 2015 and 2016.

The workload of the Court of Appeals would justify increasing the size of the court from 15 to 18, in keeping with periodic workload-based additions since the Court of Appeals was created in 1967. The legislature increased the number of judges from 6 to 9 in 1969, 9 to 12 in 1977 and 12 to 15 in 2000.

House Bills 240 and 241 would take appointment power from Cooper to fill District Court vacancies and special Superior Court judgeship and give it to the legislature.

Burr said that the N.C. Bar Association would be able to give the General Assembly five recommendations for District Court judges, but those recommendations would not be binding — lawmakers could choose whomever they wanted to be a judge.

Burr said he believed more North Carolinians would be able to weigh in if the General Assembly had the appointments as opposed to the governor, who is “only one person in the executive branch.”

When asked by a Democrat if there were problems with the current process to warrant the change, Burr didn’t have an answer and instead repeated his beliefs about it being a better process.

The House is expected to vote on the bills today. Stay tuned for updated coverage.

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