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House, Senate agreement on judicial reform won’t come this week

Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett)

It could be awhile before North Carolina sees judicial reform come to pass.

Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), a co-chair of the joint House and Senate committee on judicial reform and redistricting, said the two chambers aren’t seeing eye-to-eye on which proposed plan is best for the state.

“But we’re continuing to talk, and in this building that’s a good thing because often times people get kind of dug in and they don’t continue to engage,” he said. “I can say at least the co-chairs of this committee have continued to engage and to be forth-coming with each other.”

The Senate has been pushing for a merit selection plan to select judges, which would require a constitutional amendment approved by the voters, and the House prefers a plan that redraws all judicial and prosecutorial districts.

It was reported that the General Assembly would be voting on some form of judicial change this week, but Lewis indicated it could be awhile before there is agreement. When asked if something would be passed this year though, he was hopeful.

“I really believe that we will continue to explore this, and if it is practical — if we can make a good enough case — that you may see some changes to the districts,” he said.

Rep. Justin Burr (R-Stanly, Montgomery), the author of House Bill 717 — the judicial redistricting measure — unveiled new maps Monday at the joint committee meeting.

The new maps sparked heated debate from Democrats.

“You’ve changed the way we elect our county commissioners, you’ve tried to change the way we elect our city council and now you want to change the way we elect our judges?” asked Sen. Terry Van Duyn (D-Buncombe).

In all of Burr’s judicial maps, he split Buncombe County into multiple districts, which would mean judges would no longer run for election at large.

Van Duyn has adamantly opposed such a change and tried to get an explanation for why other counties of similar population in the maps were not split up. She believes it’s because the county votes Democrat.

Burr hasn’t really answered her question other than to point out that Buncombe is an urban county and other urban areas were also split.

“I just don’t understand,” she said Monday in frustration.

House and Senate Democratic leaders, Sen. Dan Blue and Rep. Darren Jackson, both of Wake County, tried to ascertain during the meeting what criteria Burr used to draw the maps, but his answers weren’t substantive and were inconsistent.

“You’re not letting us participate,” Jackson said.

He added that he would be happy to contribute by drawing judicial districts if the committee chairs could give him the list of criteria used for Burr’s maps and provide a stat-pack.

When other Democratic members continued to grill Burr about the maps, Lewis and Sen. Warren Daniel (R-Burke, Cleveland) asked them to stop and said Burr was only there to present information about how the new maps differed from the old maps.

Lewis also said the maps Monday were not final.

“It will continue to be changed, in fact some of the chairs are meeting with the delegation from Guilford County today and there are some more changes that are going to come,” he said. “I think there’s been progress made; we’re just not to the point yet where we can say we think we’re there.”

Lewis also said merit selection was not as far along as judicial redistricting. There was not a presentation Monday of a proposed plan.

“Obviously merit selection is something that’s been talked about in the halls of the General Assembly for 30 or 40 years,” he said. “It is something that I think we are possibly getting close to, and it’s become very politicized at the moment. People that have actually championed it and sponsored bills to support it in the past are now opposed to it, so I don’t know that we’re making a great deal of progress on merit selection.”

The next committee meeting has not yet been scheduled.

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