Courts & the Law, News

State Supreme Court Chief Justice makes call for judicial merit selection instead of elections

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin called on the General Assembly today to introduce a constitutional amendment to change judicial elections to a judicial merit selection process.

He made remarks today at the North Carolina Bar Association’s annual meeting in Asheville.

“Now I know that there’s never a good time to talk about merit selection of judges,” he said. “Critics will say that you’re trying to help one political party or the other. But I’ve been working on this issue for a long time. It’s a good government issue, not a political one.”

The recommendation was one made by the North Carolina Commission on the Administrative of Law and Justice, an interdisciplinary group that evaluated the framework of the state’s judicial branch.

“In order to enhance and preserve the highest degree of judicial integrity, fairness, and impartiality, the General Assembly should develop a selection process that ensures the highest caliber of judges and justices and minimizes the potential impact of campaigning and fundraising on judicial independence and public accountability,” the final report states.

Martin said at the meeting Saturday that he believes the judiciary should be as independent as possible.

“It should be free from the political considerations that are a normal and healthy part of the Executive and Legislative Branches,” he said.

He proposed the following basic components to ensure judges are independent and well qualified:

• First, a panel should evaluate judicial candidates in an objective and non- ideological way, and rate them as Well Qualified, Qualified, or Not Qualified. Both the Governor and the General Assembly should be able to appoint members of this panel;

• Second, an appropriate governmental authority with accountability to the people of North Carolina should appoint our State’s judges;

• And third, retention elections should be held at periodic intervals to ensure that the people of North Carolina continue to have a role in the process.

The General Assembly recently voted to make all judicial elections partisan again, joining the ranks of only seven other states, because they said they wanted voters to be equipped with more information when voting for judges.

Lawmakers have introduced and passed a number of bills this session changing the composition of the courts — bills that have been described by advocates and experts as blatant partisan power plays to politicize the judiciary.

With the exception of raising the juvenile age of prosecution, Martin has remained silent on all of those changes, despite recommendations from his commission that go against what lawmakers have been doing.

When asked in an email about a week ago about plans Martin had to announce a constitutional amendment request, Administrative Office of the Courts spokeswoman Sharon Gladwell said she hadn’t heard anything about it. The announcement was made via press release.

Commentary, News

The Week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

1. Don’t be misled by the headlines or the spin; the final budget is far worse than it looks

Most of the initial headlines about the final budget agreement announced Monday afternoon by legislative leaders were ones they could have written themselves, touting raises for teachers and state employees, a cost of living increase for state retirees and hundreds of millions of dollars more in funding for education.

Even many Raleigh insiders who should know better were praising the overall agreement for the few bright spots in it, like the provision ending the policy of automatically trying 16 and 17-year olds who commit crimes as adults.

Some were breathing a sigh of relief that absurd cuts were reduced, like the proposed $4 million reduction to the UNC School of Law in the Senate budget, which ended up as a $500,000 cut in the final agreement. [Read more…]

*** Bonus videos:

2. Public school advocates wary of “vouchers on steroids” in GOP-authored budget

The $23 billion budget deal speeding through the N.C. General Assembly this week includes a platoon of significant public school initiatives, including much-touted teacher raises, a swift ballooning of the state’s funding for a private school voucher program and dramatic cut-backs for North Carolina’s central K-12 bureaucracy.

But one little-noted provision of this year’s GOP-authored spending package that seems to be generating the most concern from public school advocates is the launch of personal education savings accounts (PESAs). The so-called “vouchers on steroids” have generated great controversy in other Republican-controlled states, but their inclusion in the North Carolina legislature’s budget deal comes with far less public scrutiny.

“There has never been any public discussion of this in the state with the General Assembly. It’s never even been presented in a committee,” says Leanne Winner, director of governmental relations for the N.C. School Boards Association, which lobbies for local boards of education at the General Assembly. [Read more]

*** Bonus read: Advocates warn budget’s K-12 grading reforms could harm schools, communities


3. The General Assembly’s war on the poor hits another new low
Unexplained, backroom maneuver would rob already underfunded anti-poverty program

There’s no denying that conservative ideology plays a big and important role in driving the North Carolina public policy debate these days. In battle after battle, Republican lawmakers have justified their positions and decisions – from cutting taxes on the wealthy and profitable corporations to reducing environmental protection efforts to privatizing public education to an array of other actions – with the claim that they were vindicating the overarching philosophical cause of downsizing government and “unleashing the private sector.”

Progressives almost always disagree with these justifications – often vehemently and with good reason – but, in most instances, one must concede a certain consistency, however twisted, to the conservative argument. Experience confirms that slashing taxes on the rich won’t actually stimulate economic growth, but one can at least see where the other side is coming from. [Read more...]

4. House Bill 374 and its restrictions on the citizens’ right to contest environmental permits, advances in Senate

Even before he dropped the gavel on the Senate Finance Committee meeting, Sen. Jerry Tillman, a notoriously cantankerous Republican from Randolph County, seemed to be in a particularly bad mood.

He mumbled about being angry. He barked at audience to take their seats, lest he start selling tickets. And with eight bills to plow through — he promised it would take no longer than 30 minutes — Tillman sped through the meeting as if he were herding cattle through a sale barn.

At that auctioneer’s pace, then, there was little discussion of the House Bill 374, legislation with far-reaching implications.  [Read more…]

***Bonus read: Former Wilmington mayor: “We’re here to express our outrage” over GenX contamination in drinking water, Cape Fear

5. U.S. Supreme Court agrees to take on partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin case that could set standards across country

The U.S. Supreme Court announced today that it would hear a partisan gerrymandering case out of Wisconsin that has the potential to affect about one-third of the maps drawn for Congress and state legislatures across the country.

It’s a case North Carolinians are keeping a close eye on, since a similar court battle is brewing here.

Gill v. Whitford is an appeal of a lower court’s order for the Wisconsin Legislature to redraw the state assembly map that the court struck down as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander by November 1. [Read more...]

*** Bonus read: Campaign finance investigation of Senate Elections Committee chair continues

News

Expert: Final state budget disregards NC’s growing needs, uncertainty of Trump budget (video)

Coming-up this weekend on News &Views with Chris Fitzsimon, we sit down with NC Budget & Tax Center (BTC) director Alexandra Sirota to discuss the winners and losers of this year’s joint budget agreement.

Sirota notes that elimination of funding for Legal Aid services and the failure to help Eastern North Carolina fully recover from the damage of Hurricane Matthew are just two of the shortsighted decisions made in this budget.

Also troubling is the legislature’s decision to prioritize tax cuts over public investments. By cutting taxes and relying on grants slated for elimination in the Trump budget for state priorities, it’s unlikely North Carolina will be able able to sustain current services levels, according to the Budget & Tax Center.

Click below for an excerpt from Policy Watch’s radio interview:

agriculture, Environment

This Week in Pollution: Randolph Packing cattle slaughter plant in Asheboro fined $48,000

The process of slaughtering cattle produces contaminants that, can be washed into wastewater discharge and into creeks, streams and rivers. (Photo: wikicommons)

The Environmental Protection Agency has fined Randolph Packing, a cattle slaughter plant in Asheboro, $48,000 for violations of the Clean Water Act. According to a consent agreement with the company, Randolph Packing had violated the terms of its federal wastewater discharge permit for five years.

From 2011 to 2016, the company discharged “industrial stormwater” into drains throughout the facility. That pollution then flowed into two drainage ditches and into Haskett Creek, a tributary of the Deep River. With the Haw, the Deep River forms the headwaters of the Cape Fear River Basin.

Several segments of Haskett Creek have consistently been placed on the federal impaired waters list, also known as the 303d. Contamination from several sources in and around the creek has contributed to poor natural habitats and low levels of dissolved oxygen. Waste discharge from slaughterhouses can also consume oxygen in water, and leaving too little for aquatic life.

The document didn’t detail the contents of “industrial stormwater.” However, large amounts of blood and other animal waste are common byproducts of commercial slaughterhouses.

In addition to its environmental violations, in 2010, Randolph Packing recalled 96,000 pounds of beef products it had shipped to from wholesalers because of possible E. coli contamination.

NC Budget and Tax Center, Trump Administration

Medicaid is the single largest source of care for Americans with mental health, substance abuse disorders

The N.C. House and Senate have voted through their joint budget and it does not strengthen Medicaid nor call for its expansion to help the most vulnerable North Carolinians. At the same time, the closely guarded U.S. Senate health care bill written entirely behind closed doors is finally out and it too does not strengthen Medicaid, but rather proposes deep cuts to the program. By refusing to strengthen Medicaid for North Carolinians and Americans in need of medical assistance, the approach of our General Assembly and Congress reflects not only a lack of leadership but also lack of desire to combat our nation’s opioid addiction epidemic.

Evidence shows that Americans with mental health and substance abuse disorders are the single largest beneficiaries of Medicaid expansion. Based on NC’s growing opioid crisis – an average of 4 deaths a day – the intersection between Medicaid and opioids is very relevant. According to the National Council for Behavioral Health:

  • Medicaid is a vital source of care for people living with mental illness or addiction: In 2014, spending by Medicaid accounted for 25 percent of all mental health spending in the U.S. and 21 percent of all substance use disorder expenditures in the nation. Approximately 29 percent of persons who receive health insurance coverage through the Medicaid expansion either have a mental disorder (e.g. schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, clinical depression, anxiety) or a substance use disorder (e.g. alcoholism, opioid addiction) or both.
  • Medicaid expansion is an opioid treatment program: As drug overdoses have overtaken auto accidents as one of the leading causes of preventable death in the U.S., states have turned to medication-assisted treatment (e.g., Vivitrol, Suboxone, Buprenorphine, and the overdose reversal drug Naloxone) as an important tool in combatting the opioid epidemic. Many states with the highest opioid overdose death rates have used Medicaid to expand access to medication–assisted treatment; for example, in Kentucky, Maine, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, Medicaid pays for between 35 and 50 percent of all medication-assisted treatment.

Given these facts, it is unfortunate that the General Assembly’s joint budget, instead of strengthening Medicaid and addressing issues in a comprehensive manner, has simply chosen to allocate $500,000 each of the next two years for a medication-assisted opioid use disorder treatment pilot program.

Given the General Assembly’s lack of interest in strengthening Medicaid to help North Carolinians in need, it is worth noting that President Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis held its first meeting last Friday and Medicaid was the elephant in the room.

President Trump appointed Governor Cooper as one of his five commission members to combat the opioid crisis, and Cooper used his allotted time to tie the fate of the American Health Care Act—and the fate of Medicaid—to the future of the opioid crisis, stating:

“At the addiction level we need treatment and prevention … and we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think that what is happening over in Congress regarding issues of health care, matters to this issue. … If we make it harder and more expensive for people to get health care coverage, it’s going to make this crisis worse.”

Overall, it is critical for legislators to understand that Medicaid is the single largest source of care for Americans with mental health and substance abuse disorders. Given the opioid crisis in North Carolina, legislators must do more to strengthen Medicaid. Cutting Medicaid and reducing access to it will only worsen the opioid crisis that the people of our state are facing.

Luis A. Toledo is a Public Policy Analyst for the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center.