News

Redistricting committees set to meet jointly tomorrow; expected to adopt map-making criteria

The joint House and Senate Redistricting Committees will return tomorrow to adopt criteria for redrawing legislative maps to correct unconstitutional racial gerrymandering.

The public meeting will be held at 10 a.m. in room 643 of the Legislative Office Building. There will be a live audio stream available here.

The committees have already met jointly twice before — once to organize and a second time to hear public comment. The second meeting took place last week and the overwhelming majority of public members asked lawmakers to leave race and partisan considerations out of the mapmaking process.

Legislators have until Sept. 1 to submit new maps to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. If they fail to do so or if the maps don’t pass muster with the court, a three-judge panel could hire a special master to redraw the districts.

In a radio interview with NC Policy Watch’s Chris Fitzsimon on Wednesday, Sen. Jeff Jackson (D-Mecklenburg) said he expects the Republicans will present significantly improved maps this time around.

“If for no other reason than I think Republicans are really scared that if they monkey around that the court is going to do what it’s said it will do, which is appoint a special master and take it out of their hands completely,” he said. “I think the only thing that’s scarier for the Republicans than drawing maps that are relatively fair is losing the power to draw them altogether.”

Jackson, who described himself as a longstanding proponent of independent redistricting, said the question will be how far will the Republicans go in complying with the court order”

“So far, we have seen no good faith, frankly,” he added.

Republican legislative leaders re-hired national GOP mapmaker Tom Hofeller to consult for them in the mapmaking process. Hofeller drew the maps in 2011 that were found to be racially gerrymandered in the first place.

According to The Insider, lawmakers are paying Hofeller a flat $50,000 fee for his services. You can read more about his contract here.

Courts & the Law, News

Governor challenging parts of budget in expanded, ongoing lawsuit against legislative leaders

Gov. Roy Cooper is challenging several more actions taken by the legislature in ongoing litigation.

He amended his complaint in Cooper v. Berger today to include three challenges to the budget that was passed by lawmakers in June. The challenges, according to the lawsuit, are examples of unconstitutional overreach to limit Cooper’s constitutional authority.

Below are the challenges added to the lawsuit with a brief summary of each from the Governor’s Office:

  • The General Assembly’s attempt to mandate the inclusion of funding for school vouchers in the Governor’s future budget proposals: “In Sec. 6.6 (b) of the budget, the General Assembly mandated that the Governor include funding for school vouchers in his proposed budget, totaling nearly a billion dollars over the next decade. Presenting a budget proposal is a constitutional duty of the Governor, and it violates the separation of powers to mandate the inclusion of items for the Governor to include.”
  • The General Assembly’s attempt to direct the disbursement of federal block grants: “In the budget, the General Assembly seeks to appropriate or direct the disbursement of funds from federal block grants for purposes contrary to the preferences of the Governor and executive agencies. The Governor’s proposed budget outlined specific uses for millions of dollars of block grant funding that the General Assembly’s budget altered. It is the executive branch’s constitutional duty to execute the law — in this case federal law — by ensuring the disbursement of federal block grant funds in accordance with federal requirements. Federal block grants are provided to the state pursuant to federal law and congressional policy and the General Assembly has no authority to appropriate these funds.”
  • The General Assembly’s attempt to intercede and direct the disbursement of funds received from a federal settlement with Volkswagen with respect to their “clean diesel” vehicles: “Following a federal lawsuit over their ‘Clean Diesel’ vehicles, Volkswagen agreed to a settlement resulting in the creation of a $2.7 billion Environmental Mitigation Trust Fund to reduce nitrous oxide emissions from certain Volkswagen and Audi vehicles. Under the terms of the Trust Agreement, North Carolina will receive $87 million towards that purpose. Under the terms of the settlement, the Governor has the authority to select the state agency that will be the beneficiary of the settlement funds and the executive branch will create a plan for administering the funds. In Sec. 13.2 (b) of the budget, the General Assembly attempts to intercede and dictate how the state will allocate the settlement funds. Because the terms of the settlement direct the trust be used for a specific purpose, the funds are custodial in nature and it is the Governor’s duty to administer them in accordance with the mandates of the federal court and trustee. Therefore, the General Assembly’s action is an impermissible attempt to prevent the Governor from carrying out his official duties.”

You can read the full amended complaint here.

Legislative leaders have not yet publicly responded to the new challenges.

Courts & the Law, News

Reduction of emergency judges results in 68 days of cancelled court so far, including 3-week Henderson trial

There are 68 days of court cancelled in North Carolina from July 10 through November 3 as a result of lawmakers cutting the number of emergency judges by more than two-thirds.

Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) spokeswoman Sharon Gladwell responded to a request last week with a chart that reflects district and superior court cancellations due to the budget provision dictating how many emergency judges can be used and for what reasons they can be used.

The provision went into effect July 1. There are 67 days of district court cancellations and there is one cancelled day of superior court. Emergency judges are assigned commissions, which represent the days they are to preside over court cases.

Provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts

The most cancellations (13 days) were reported between July 17 and 21 in Cumberland, Caldwell, Burke, Catawba, Cleveland, Lincoln, Union, Henderson, Polk and Transylvania counties.

Several days of cancellations involve now inactive emergency Judge Lillian Jordan and a complicated equitable distribution trial that was supposed to begin July 17 and last three weeks, according to an email obtained from the AOC by NC Policy Watch.

Chief District Court Judge Athena Brooks, of Henderson, Polk and Transylvania counties, wrote AOC director Marion Warren and assistant director David Hoke an urgent request July 10 asking them not to cancel Jordan’s commission.

Her email demonstrates the domino effect of the cancellation and the cost already associated with such an involved case.

“Judge Jordan was assigned to handle the Holbert ED, which is a 2009 filing. Before you jump to conclusions and assume no one has been proactive in this matter, let me provide some history. This action has had two attorneys sued for malpractice, two trips to NC Court of Appeals, three changes in counsel, and currently has four local counsel representing the parties. Subject to the distribution are more than 26 commercial properties, in addition to residential assets. The parties have complied with FFS mediation requirement years ago. The plaintiff is an elderly man, with significant health challenges in addition to normal reduced memory functions as is common with aging. There is great concern his health will not withstand continued delays to witness resolution of this matter. Additionally, the various properties have been appraised several times in recent years in anticipation of trial of this matter. Judge Jordan set the trial of this matter in January 2017 to begin July 17, 2017, and both parties have been diligently seeking updated valuations and appraisals of all properties as needed. Further Judge Jordan has held two pre-trial hearings, the most recent of which was June 27 (or so) in this matter. This has resulted in additional expenses in excess of $5000, of which neither party wishes to repeat.

One judge of four in this district has recused herself. To have one of the regularly seated district court judges in such a trial while the other three attempt to keep court afloat in the rest of the three county district will cause a great case management dilemma and result in numerous cases being delayed.

I understand the new legislation has posed quite a challenge for your emergency judicial allocation. Please know that I am sensitive to this challenge and would not be asking if I did not feel this to be a true case management emergency. Please approve Judge Lillian Jordan to preside over this Holbert ED as originally commissioned to begin July 17, 2017, and continue three weeks.”

A court case-management emergency is deemed one of the circumstances that the AOC can assign an emergency judge under the new provision, but the reduction in emergency judges necessitated the cancellation, according to Gladwell.

The trial court administrator in district 29B, where the trial was set to take place, said they have resubmitted a request for Jordan to be re-commissioned on the case and are awaiting the outcome.

Courts & the Law, News

Redistricting meeting: co-chair says maps not yet drawn; public demands fair, transparent process

James Wood, 19, of Raleigh, criticized lawmakers Friday for not drawing constitutional legislative maps sooner. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Rep. David Lewis, chair of the House Committee on Redistricting, said during a meeting Friday that he did not know of any legislative maps already drawn at his or legislative leaders’ direction.

Rep. Henry Michaux Jr. (D-Durham) questioned Lewis about whether or not there were already maps drawn that had not been unveiled to the public in response to a court order to remedy unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.

Lawmakers were at a joint House and Senate Redistricting Committee meeting Friday, which included a public hearing in which many residents accused Republicans of already having the maps drawn.

“I’m confident that those maps have already been drawn,” said Jen Jones, who works for Democracy NC but said she was speaking on behalf of herself as an Orange County resident who grew up in Warren County. “Please as a North Carolinian and voter, show us the maps, and I promise as North Carolinians and voters, we’ll tell you exactly how we feel about them.”

The overwhelming majority of the 31 people who spoke, several of whom disclosed they worked for voting rights organizations, begged lawmakers to use a nonpartisan process to redraw unconstitutional legislative districts.

Ira Botvinick, of Raleigh, asked lawmakers to pass House Bill 200, a redistricting reform measure that would take drawing maps out of the hands of politicians.

“I want my vote to matter,” he said. “I did not come here to criticize Republicans. Gerrymandering is wrong.”

Mike Jennings, of Cary, said he wanted a fair and transparent drawing process.

“I know in the past others have drawn districts to favor them — I agree, it was wrong,” he said. “It’s time to turn the corner.”

He asked lawmakers to turn the other cheek and rise above partisanship, adding that it was the right thing to do.

“My children [and] grandchildren are counting on you,” he said.

Others suggested criteria for redistricting, including transparency, compact and contiguous districts, an efficiency gap calculation, equal population and no racial or partisan gerrymandering. They questioned the Republican lawmakers commitment to using their input in light of re-hiring national GOP mapmaker Tom Hofeller as a consultant in the process.

“Nonpartisan redistricting is fundamentally about preserving democracy,” said Heather Simon, also of Cary.

She added that the current districts do not represent the will of the people of North Carolina, and that “once lost, democracy is very hard to regain.”

Dallas Woodhouse, Executive Director of the N.C. GOP, also spoke at the public hearing and said the party supports using traditional criteria  in the redistricting process — both keeping counties as whole as possible and using some race but “not too much.”

“We also think the use or discussion of statewide election data is completely irrelevant, even though it is largely favorable to the North Carolina Republican Party, that has won an overwhelming amount of the statewide election races in the past six years,” he said. “We do not elect people on a system of Parliament like they do in Europe — it is not the job of this committee to make a political party that lost 76 North Carolina counties in the presidential election competitive.”

Perhaps the youngest public member who offered input was James Wood, 19, of Raleigh. He asked why lawmakers needed an intervention of the U.S. Supreme Court to draw fair legislative districts.

“In any classroom or workplace, if you turn something in late — five days late — you know exactly what’s going to happen to you,” he said. “You get an ‘F’ or you get fired. But more than five years late? Forget about it.”

Wood, who attends school at Yale University, said it would be understandable if the legislature had worked to fix districts the first time they were found unconstitutional.

“But I have watched you fight justice tooth and nail; others have no doubt watched you too,” he said. “What kind of impression do you think you’re making to young people? I can give you a hint that it’s not too good. We are done with your pettiness and in the not-so-distant future when we’re up there running the show, things are going to be different around here.”

The room started to clap for Wood, but one of the Sergeant-at-Arms told them they weren’t allowed to do that.

Democratic lawmakers held a press conference Friday morning to call on colleagues to adopt fair redistricting criteria. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Before the redistricting committee meeting, Democratic lawmakers held a press conference to call for fair maps and offer redistricting criteria.

Sen. Ben Clark (D-Cumberland, Hoke) submitted a recommended criteria list to Republican leaders that he passed out at the press event. He said that redistricting needed to be treated with seriousness and urgency.

Democratic leader Sen. Dan Blue said it’s time for the legislature to fix the constitutional violations. He said that actions speak louder than words, and that thus far, Republicans have not instilled a lot of faith with their actions.

Still, he said, he hopes for the best throughout the process and for the opportunity to work constructively with Republicans.

The next joint Redistricting Committee meeting is scheduled at 10 a.m. Thursday in room 643 of the Legislative Office Building. Lewis said he expects the committee to adopt redistricting criteria, which will allow them to move forward with drawing the maps.

The maps have to be enacted by Sept. 1.

News

With $3 million to go, AG Josh Stein says he cannot make any more cuts to DOJ (with video)

Attorney General Josh Stein eliminated 45 positions Wednesday after a $10 million budget cut implemented by the General Assembly. (Photo by Nelle Dunlap)

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein announced Thursday that he was forced to eliminate 45 positions at the Department of Justice after the legislature slashed his budget by $10 million.

Agencies that are DOJ clients have agreed to fund an additional 40 lawyer positions, which represents about $3.5 million in savings. That leaves $3 million in the balance but Stein said he cannot make any more cuts.

“We’ve cut the Attorney General’s Office into the bone and we cannot go deeper,” he said at a press conference at the DOJ. “Now, the legislature is going to be in and out of session a number of times in the next coming months, so I repeat my call to the General Assembly: protect the people of North Carolina and reconsider these cuts that put risk on the people of our state.”

More than half of the positions Stein eliminated were attorney positions.

“I want to tell you some of what North Carolina lost yesterday,” he said, listing some of the people who were laid off:

  • “Three lawyers with vast knowledge handling criminal appeals of convicted child sex offenders. This is incredibly difficult, draining work and absolutely critical to public safety;
  • An attorney who enforces our child support laws and goes after deadbeat parents who are not doing right by their kids;
  • A lawyer with 30 years of experience protecting the quality of the water that we drink;
  • Attorneys who defend the state, often in frivolous cases, against claims of negligence. Each one of those claims have the potential liability to the taxpayer of $1 million;
  • Experts in complex tobacco cases that bring into North Carolina’s coffers hundreds of millions of dollars every year.”

And that’s just a handful of the dozens of people who will no longer serve North Carolinians, Stein added.

Other cuts he had to make will primarily affect district attorneys across the state, as DOJ attorneys will no longer be able to handle all criminal appeals, the prosecution of complex or conflict cases or motions for appropriate relief (MARs).

Pitt County District Attorney Kimberly Robb, who is also President of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, and Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman spoke at the press conference about the burden the cuts will create.

“We already do not have the manpower and the resources we need to do the job we already undertake, so I believe this is going to be a very difficult transition for us and we will need to be properly funded,” Robb said.

Pitt County District Attorney Kimberly Robb spoke Thursday at a press conference about how a $10 million DOJ cut would affect prosecutors across the state. (Photo by Nelle Dunlap)

The change is going to require a lot of travel to Raleigh to argue at the Court of Appeals and a lot more time out of the office, she added. There will need to be more experienced prosecutors on staff to handle conflict cases, which arise frequently.

“I think this is going to be a seismic shift for our offices in that right now we are on the front lines; we are trial attorneys, we are not appellate attorneys,” Robb said. “We’re out there protecting the public. We’re out there fighting the opioid crisis. We’re out there dealing with gang violence. We’re out there dealing with domestic violence cases; and I have to say that anything that takes us away from those primary responsibilities is dangerous if we’re not adequately funded.”

Other cuts that were made directly affect the law enforcement community. Some of the lawyers whose positions were eliminated were part of the Law Enforcement Liaison Section of the DOJ.

They provided legal training at the Justice Academy; they reviewed law enforcement training curriculum, tried cases related to video poker and tried cases and offered advice to both the Criminal Justice and Sheriffs’ Education and Training Standards Commissions.

“I appreciate what Attorney General Stein has done to try to mitigate so far the cuts he’s made,” said Pender County Sheriff Carson Smith, who is President of the N.C. Sheriff’s Association. “It’s hurt so far, but if it continues to cut, there will be a tremendous impact on the entire law enforcement community across the state.”

Smith said he traveled to Raleigh “because this is where you can take care of things,” adding that he hopes the legislature will find a way to get the funding back to the DOJ.

Garner Police Chief Brandon Zuidema also spoke about the cuts on behalf of the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police.

He said the training facilitated by the DOJ is critical to police agencies across the state. He also expressed concern about the reduction to the Law Enforcement Liaison section and the new burden on district attorneys.

“I think the most baseline argument as we continue to see new threats, new crimes, new dangers across North Carolina, we’re in a situation where we need more help and not less,” Zuidema said.

Stein continues to try to work with the legislature and hopes lawmakers will see the err of their ways before having to cut an additional $3 million, but House Speaker Tim Moore didn’t give much credence Thursday to the plight.

“We believe the resource is there for the Attorney General to fully take care of the criminal issues in North Carolina,” he said in a video released by House communications director Joseph Kyzer. “We also believe that some of the civil work the Attorney General’s Office does can be moved to those other agencies, so the last thing the Attorney General needs to do is do anything that impedes with the criminal justice process. He has adequate resources, very adequate resources, to take care of those issues.”

Stein said lawmakers never asked him how the DOJ’s budget works or how its money is spent before making the cut, which was not included in either the House or the Senate draft budgets.

He is still having conversations with state agencies, boards and commissions to solicit funds to ease the budget cuts, according to his Communications Director Laura Brewer. For that reason, the DOJ is not naming the agencies that agreed to fund the additional 40 lawyer positions.

Stein said he has tried to prioritize and keep as many attorney positions as he can but 95 percent of the DOJ budget represents its people.

“We’re not a department that runs a lot of programs or has a lot of things that can be cut other than human beings,” he said.

He added that he will do everything in his power to protect the North Carolinians from the “irresponsible” cuts.