Bill to shrink state Court of Appeals, add to Supreme Court’s workload in Governor’s hands now

Republican lawmakers have ignored every piece of advice and concern from the legal community over the last few weeks regarding shrinking the Court of Appeals and passed House Bill 239 Tuesday.

The bill not only reduces the court from 15 to 12 judges, it takes away three types of cases and adds them to the state Supreme Court’s workload.

Republicans have referenced a shrinking workload at the Court of Appeals as the reason for reducing the number of judges on the bench, but often use incorrect data or don’t include information about motions and petitions the court hears.

Other than the Republicans who drafted the bills and a few partisan lawmakers, no one has expressed support for HB239 — not lawyers, not judges (including those registered Republican), not advocates, not organized legal groups or judicial organizations. The courts also did not ask for lawmakers to make the changes in HB239.

Rep. Justin Burr (R-Montgomery, Stanly) told his colleagues he did not consult with the courts when he drafted the bill, that they didn’t need input from the judicial branch to make laws.

Democrats have said the bill is another power-grab from Gov. Roy Cooper, who would have the opportunity to appoint three appellate judges as three current Republican judges approach mandatory retirement. They’ve also accused Republicans of trying to stack the courts because a lot of their laws have been ruled unconstitutional by the judicial branch.

But the biggest concern among both the Democrats and the legal community in general is the affect HB239 will have on North Carolinians, specifically children who are waiting to find out who their mothers and fathers will be.

The Court of Appeals currently hears about 100 termination of parental rights appeals per year and has an expedited process to move things along as quickly as possible. The state Supreme Court does not have a process in place to hear such cases. Between creating a process, learning the cases and scheduling them, delays are almost inevitable.

“The transfer of the termination of parental rights cases to the Supreme Court is actually a disservice to those involved in those cases,” said Rep. Joe John (D-Wake), who is a former Court of Appeals judge.

He pointed out that the Court of Appeals meets twice a month with the exception of two months during the summer and that last year, the Supreme Court met only six days out of the entire year to hear cases.

“Common sense tells you that these important termination of parental rights cases would be resolved much more quickly in a much shorter time in the Court of Appeals rather than the Supreme Court,” John said.

Rep. John Autry (D-Wake) agreed with John and spoke about his oldest daughter’s personal experience with a termination of parental rights appeal. She is a foster mother in New Hanover County who took custody of two young boys. The termination case was heard in Nov. 2015, and one of the parents appealed the case. It was not decided until Dec. 2016, and Autry’s daughter is now trying to adopt the children.

“It just seems to me that to pass this bill, to pass [HB]239, would exacerbate the situation with these children,” he said. “Their lives are affected directly, and [we are] keeping them in limbo for a much longer period of time than is necessary.”

Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham) also spoke against the first time. The longtime former judge started working as a legislator on Monday, and it was the first time she spoke on the House floor.

“[HB239] will delay these cases,” she said of termination of parental rights appeals. “There will not be permanency for these children; foster parents [will be] anxiously waiting to adopt — it’s a disservice to our children.”

It should be noted that Morey has extensive judicial experience with cases involving children. She and John are the only two legislators in the General Assembly with experience as judges.

Rep. Darren Jackson (D-Wake) also expressed concern about the termination of parental rights appeals, which were an amendment to the bill while being reviewed in the Senate, and asked that HB239 be re-referred to a House judiciary committee for further review.

“We’re not even taking the time to consider that [part of the bill] in committee over here in the House; it’s not even being debated,” he said. “I mean we’re talking about taking people’s children away from them and how that’s handled, and you’re telling me we don’t have the time to send this bill to committee to discuss that?”

Burr asked members of the House to vote against Jackson’s motion, and called everyone’s concerns rhetoric “on the other side of the aisle.” The motion was voted down 43-69.

The bill is now on it’s way to Cooper’s desk. It’s likely he will veto it, but it’s also likely Republican lawmakers, who have a super-majority, will override his veto. By the time the long session ends this year, experts have said North Carolina will be well on its way to destroying an independent judiciary.

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