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Superior Court judges hire lobbyists; merit selection plan could be unveiled by end of October

Tracy Kimbrell and Nathan Babcock

The North Carolina Conference of Superior Court Judges hired two lobbyists this week to be their “eyes and ears” in Raleigh.

The lobbyists are Nathan Babcock [1] and Tracy Kimbrell [2], both of the Parker Poe law firm. The president of the Conference, Superior Court Judge Joe Crosswhite, who serves district 22A in Alexander and Iredell counties, said the lobbyists weren’t hired in response to any particular bill or policy decision.

“There’s a lot of talk in Raleigh, and we just needed somebody to be our eyes and ears,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Our judges, we’re out working all the time.”

He added that the Conference hired the lobbyists on a short-term basis, through the end of October. When the group, which has about 120 members, meets again next month, it will decide how to proceed.

The move comes a little over a month after the North Carolina Association of District Court Judges hired two well-known lobbyists [3], Charles Neely Jr. and Richard Zechini, of the Williams Mullen law firm. That group hired lobbyists in reaction to a judicial redistricting bill that is currently making its way through the House.

Crosswhite said House Bill 717 was part of the reason for the Conference hiring lobbyists, “but that was not all of it at all.”

Before joining Parker Poe, Babcock was the political director for the North Carolina Chamber, where he successfully lobbied for comprehensive legislative priorities including education, tax reform, tort reform, unemployment insurance reform and transportation funding modifications, according to his biography.

Kimbrell served as general counsel for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger from 2010 to 2013. In 2012, she served as the acting chief of staff in the Senate leader’s legislative office.

She also previously worked at the General Assembly in the office of the Senate Minority Leader, researching and monitoring legislative matters on behalf of the Senate Republican Caucus. She later worked on a Republican gubernatorial campaign.

Kimbrell confirmed in an email Wednesday afternoon that she and Babcock did register as lobbyists for the Conference and said neither had a comment to offer at this time.

Judicial redistricting isn’t the only courts-related agenda action item on the General Assembly’s schedule this year. The Senate has been floating a potential merit-selection plan to various groups over the last couple months.

Crosswhite confirmed Wednesday that the Conference is scheduled to meet with Berger’s chief of staff, Jim Blaine, next week to hear a presentation on merit selection [4]. He said it’s something the Conference has talked about but wanted to wait for a lobbyist to get on board before meeting with Blaine.

He also praised the Senate for having a candid process as merit selection is considered.

“They have been very responsive and very helpful and very willing to sit down and talk with us about it,” Crosswhite said.

The Conference has not yet adopted a position on merit selection and Crosswhite said it will wait to see what the actual proposal is before doing so. He added that it’s expected the Senate will unveil its merit selection process by the end of October.

Rep. Justin Burr (R-Stanly, Montgomery) indicated last week [5] that the General Assembly could pass new judicial maps and put a merit selection constitutional amendment on the ballot, which would allow voters to decide which process would go into effect.

Crosswhite reiterated that the Conference is not a political organization.

“We needed help and that’s what this is,” he said of hiring lobbyists. “October will be an active month.”