Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy

North Carolinians press legislators to end the attacks on judicial independence (photo gallery)

Dozens of concerned citizens and advocates descended on the General Assembly for today’s special session to call on lawmakers to end their attempt to rig the court system for partisan gain.

Here are just a few images from the Fair Courts Day of Action, led by the NC NAACP, NC Voters for Clean Elections, Democracy NC, Common Cause NC, the NC Council of Churches, Equality NC, ACLU of NC, AFL-CIO NC and the NCAE.

Photo by Melissa Boughton.

Photo by Melissa Boughton.

Photo by Melissa Boughton.

Photos by Clayton Henkel

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy

Two voices GOP lawmakers should listen to before advancing judicial reforms

House and Senate members had not (as of Tuesday afternoon) posted an agenda for Wednesday’s special legislative session. But it’s clear work to overhaul North Carolina’s judiciary continues to move forward. On Thursday, members of the newly appointed Joint Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting will meet for the first time.

Two respected voices that lawmakers should listen to before they decide what changes they will put forth this year appeared last week on NC Policy Watch’s News & Views with Rob Schofield. (Click below to hear each interview in its entirety.)

Recently retired Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens discussed his concerns with the rush to redraw judicial districts and reshape the state’s court system.

Alicia Bannon, Senior Counsel for the Brennan Center, weighed in on the merit selection process and the need for greater transparency in North Carolina’s judicial reform efforts.

Thursday’s Joint Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting will convene at 1:00 p.m. in Room 544 of the Legislative Office Building. Policy Watch Courts & Law reporter Melissa Boughton will provide full coverage.


Parents demand action on class-size chaos during special session

Bitterly cold temperatures did not deter North Carolina parents from turning out Saturday to urge legislators to repeal the unfunded class-size mandate.

They worry unless legislators address the class-size chaos during this week’s special session, many school districts will reduce “enhancement” courses such as art, music, PE, or technology.

Rep. Craig Horn, who co-chairs the House K-12 budget committee, has vowed his colleagues are working on “a reasonable solution.”

To check out the parents’ message to the General Assembly, scroll through some of the photos from the weekend rally below.

(Photos courtesy of Sarah Montgomery.)








Education, News

The Week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

1. Chairman of House Education Committee: Solution to class size crisis is in the works

A plan to resolve North Carolina’s class size crisis is in the works and should be wrapped up in the coming weeks, an influential state legislator tells Policy Watch.

“The gap is closing,” says Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who co-chairs the House K-12 budget committee. “There are folks that are working on a reasonable solution with the session coming as quickly as it is next week.”

And while Horn said he doubts lawmakers will strike a deal by the time legislators reconvene next Wednesday, he said state leaders aren’t likely to delay a resolution until the start of the General Assembly’s short session in the spring. [Read more…]

***Bonus read: Higher ed battles seem certain to continue in 2018: Here are five to watch

2. New report: Court fines and fees are criminalizing poverty in North Carolina

[Editor’s note: The issue of constantly rising court fines and fees has long been a big problem in North Carolina. Now, a new report released today by the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund at the University of North Carolina entitled “Court Fines and Fees: Criminalizing Poverty in North Carolina,” documents that matters have reached crisis levels. Through a combination of sobering real life stories and a treasure trove of data, researchers Heather Hunt and Prof. Gene Nichol explain how North Carolina is, quite literally, criminalizing poverty through the imposition of burdensome fines and fees that millions of people cannot afford.]

The following is from a subsection of the report entitled “Perpetual Debt”:

Most criminal defendants are poor. Nationally, about 80-90% of those charged with a criminal offense are poor enough to qualify for a court-appointed lawyer. Around 20% of jail inmates report having no income before they were incarcerated and 60% earned less than $1,000 per month (in 2002 dollars, about $16,000 a year now). Almost a third of defendants are unemployed before their arrest. [Read more…]

3. The environment in 2018: Forecasting the state policy debates for the coming year

Oh, Magic Eight Ball, will legislators step up in 2018 and pass meaningful laws to prevent contamination and to penalize polluters?

The House? Reply hazy, try again.

The Senate, which includes some of the most ardent anti-regulatory lawmakers (Trudy Wade, Harry Brown)? Don’t count on it.

Will the state Utilities Commission reject Duke Energy’s sky-high rate increase request?

Ask again later.

Will extreme weather, boosted by climate change, convince developers to stop paving the coast?

Outlook not so good. [Read more…]

***Bonus read: River Quality Committee sends GenX bill to full House, but Senate cooperation is uncertain

4. Familiar issues likely to highlight NC courts news in 2018

New Year, new…wait a minute. It’s looking more and more like this year’s North Carolina General Assembly motto will be “New Year, same me.”

It’s fully expected that lawmakers will continue building on many of the same themes to which North Carolinians were witness in 2017, starting with the legislature’s continued vise grip on the courts. Though it’s possible their fingers may be pried open by several court decisions expected in the first half of the year, lawmakers’ plans to remake the state judiciary remain on the front burner,

Other similar themes expected to rear up in 2018 include burdening the poor and fighting to keep racial gerrymandering on the table. For more detailed explanations, see below: [Read more…]

*** Bonus video: Retired Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens on the legislature’s troubling rush to ‘reform’ NC courts

5. A New Year’s resolution for progressives: Hold fast and work for victory

Why attempting to appease conservative fundamentalists is not the answer

These are tough times for American progressives. The President of the United States is a serial falsifier and an inveterate champion of the worst kind of predatory plutocracy. Meanwhile, the congressional majority that fuels and sustains much of his power and influence is, in turn, undergirded by an unholy alliance of robber barons, nativists and theocrats that rejects the very idea of a modern, plural democracy. Add to this toxic tableau an overlay of bitter, sometimes violent, racism and the hard reality of an economy starkly and increasingly divided between haves and have nots, and the picture gets that much darker.

In such a difficult environment, it’s understandable that many modern progressives long desperately for a way to break through the bitter divisions that grip the country and find some measure of common ground with the opposition. Especially given the fact that so many on the right take a militant – even hostile stance – the notion that at least some of the more outwardly civil conservatives profess a willingness to engage in civil conversation has an obvious appeal. “Surely,” goes the thinking, “if we can just sit down and talk, we can break down some of the barriers and misunderstandings that divide us.” [Read more…]


Five things to have on your radar this week

#1 – Activists who have staged weekly protests outside Senator Thom Tillis’
office in Raleigh for nearly a year brave the frigid temps and return today at 11:30 am to express their outrage at his vote in favor of the GOP tax bill.

Learn more about their ongoing protests here.

#2 – The North Carolina State Board of Education holds its first meeting of 2018 on Wednesday. Members will receive a special presentation from University of North Carolina System President Margaret Spellings on Thursday morning.

Education reporter Billy Ball will be live tweeting the Board’s monthly meeting. Agendas for both days can be found here.

#3 – The Senate Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting meets Wednesday afternoon at 1:00pm. It appears Democratic Committee members will finally be able to present their ideas on redistricting and alternative methods of judicial selection.

Policy Watch’s Melissa Boughton will be covering this meeting.

#4 – The House Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality picks up where it left off on Thursday morning. Representative Ted Davis presides over the meeting as lawmakers determine how to protect North Carolina’s waterways from GenX and other emerging contaminants. The committee gets underway at 9:30am in Room 643 of the Legislative Office Building.

#5 – On Saturday, Save Our Schools! is holding a rally from 1:00-3:00pm on the Halifax Mall behind the Legislature, to encourage the General Assembly to repeal the class size mandate law when it reconvenes for its special session on January 10, and to make a long-term commitment to increase per-pupil spending.

Speakers will include teachers, students and representatives from public education advocacy groups from across North Carolina. Learn more about that event here.