Courts & the Law, News

Report: AOC to mail 615 monthly waivers to prepare for change in court fines, fees

A budget provision that will make it more difficult for judges to waive court fines and fees for indigent defendants goes into effect Dec. 1, but the Administrative Office of the Courts has found a way to lighten the load.

The provision mandates that no court may waive or remit all or part of any court fines or costs without providing 15 days’ notice and an opportunity to be heard to all government entities affected by the monetary collection. They duty would fall to local clerks, but the AOC plans to instead mail a standard letter to 615 entities once per month, according to a WRAL report.

“That letter will include the internet address of the state’s online courts calendar and tell officials that fees could be waived at any criminal hearing on the calendar,” the report states. “Local jurisdictions can send additional notices if they like, but the guidance doesn’t require that. It says they should work with local entities, particularly if they request different or more frequent notice.”

NC Policy Watch reported the consequences of the budget provision earlier this year when it was being considered by lawmakers. WRAL also included in its report some statistics about the impact the measure could have.

What remains unclear is whether GOP lawmakers will be satisfied by the AOC’s solution.

“It’s unclear whether the AOC’s plan will pass muster with GOP legislators who pushed for the notice requirement, which takes effect Dec. 1,” WRAL reports. “The proposal was a Senate priority, and Sen. Warren Daniel, who co-chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said last week that the legislature’s legal staff has been asked to analyze the AOC’s plan.

‘We do want to make sure they’re complying with the spirit of the provision,’ said Daniel, R-Burke.”

You can read WRAL’s full report here.

Courts & the Law, News

Lawmakers still object to special master; Covington plaintiffs offer incumbency tweaks to new plan

The legislative defendants in the racial gerrymandering case that involves state House and Senate districts opposes the federal court’s appointment of a special master and alleges abuse of discretion in a motion filed Friday.

“The process under which the special master is proceeding is irregular and inappropriate,” the motion states. “It defies precedent, ignores state sovereignty, and imposes race-based redistricting on the State against its will. Unless and until the Court issues a final ruling on the constitutionality of the Subject Districts, the special master should propose in his report to the Court the districts as drawn in 2017 by the North Carolina General Assembly.”

The court expressed concerns about the constitutionality of certain legislative districts in maps GOP lawmakers redrew to correct the constitutional violations in the first maps. It asked for the special master to weigh in, issue a report and potentially redraw any districts still deemed unconstitutional.

The special master, Stanford Law professor Nathaniel Persily, released his report last week, which redrew all the districts the court expressed concern over: Senate districts in Cumberland, Hoke and Guilford counties and House districts in Sampson, Wayne, Mecklenburg, Guilford and Wake counties.

The plaintiffs in North Carolina v. Covington filed its motion Friday stating they believe Persily’s maps remedy the racial gerrymanders and other constitutional flaws perpetuated in the redrawn maps.

They also propose some adjustments to “unpair” some incumbents, elected lawmakers who would be forced to run against each other in the 2018 election. Those incumbents the plaintiffs say could be unpaired are: Rep. Amos Quick (D-Guilford) and Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford), and Rep. Cynthia Ball (D-Wake) and Rep. Grier Martin (D-Wake).

The plaintiffs note that they could not find a way to unpair Sen. Ben Clark (D- Cumberland, Hoke) and Sen. Wesley Meredith (R-Cumberland); Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford) and (R-Guilford); and Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) and Rep. John Blust (R-Guilford).

The legislative defendants in Covington did not address Persily’s pairing of incumbents in its motion opposing his tentative maps.

It argued that the case was moot and “if plaintiffs want to pursue additional claims, they must file a new lawsuit.” They also argue that the plaintiffs “no longer have a concrete stake in the outcome of the case because they face no realistic threat of injury.”

Other arguments legislative defendants make are that the court abuses its discretion by ordering a plan from Persily before making a final ruling on the redrawn districts; Persily redrew some districts based on an incorrect interpretation of the state Constitution; and Persily “improperly engaged in racial sorting to create districts with a mechanical target of black voting age population between 39 percent and 43.6 percent.”

The court has yet to weigh in on Persily’s proposed maps.

Courts & the Law

Center for American Progress highlights effects of NC judicial changes on judges of color

Lawmakers are hellbent on changing the judiciary one way or another before the 2018 elections, and though it’s still unknown what exactly will happen, the proposals that have been floated result in a whitewashing of the bench.

Judges of color are already underrepresented on the bench and a recent NC Policy Watch analysis of House Bill 717, which redraws judicial and prosecutorial districts, showed that many would be double-bunked under the proposal. Additionally, there are separate challenges judges of color would face under a merit selection proposal.

The Center for American Progress wrote about the disadvantages changes to the judiciary pose to judges of color.

“The state’s African American judges have found themselves caught in the crossfire of these political battles,” the article states. “People of color are already severely underrepresented in North Carolina state courts, and recent changes could be making the problem worse. Bills pending in the legislature could deepen the disparity and further entrench a conservative, white elite in the state’s judiciary. At a moment of deep divisions and doubts about American democracy, political decisions that could eliminate the few judges of color would only heighten the mistrust among communities of color with respect to the justice system and the political process.”

The article ties voting rights cases to the North Carolina General Assembly’s attacks on the judiciary. You can read it in full here.

Courts & the Law, News

Farm workers, civil rights groups file federal lawsuit over NC Farm Act

Farm workers and civil rights groups announced a federal lawsuit outside the legislature Wednesday over a recently passed law that inhibits farm workers from unionizing. (Photo by Carol Brooke)

North Carolina farm workers and a coalition of civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit this week challenging a state law that inhibits the ability of farm workers to organize and make collective bargaining agreements with employers.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of the only farm workers’ union in the state — the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) — and two individual farm workers. It was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the North Carolina Justice Center and the Law Offices of Robert J. Willis.

The suit argues that the North Carolina Farm Act of 2017, Senate Bill 617, impedes farm workers’ First Amendment right to participate in unions, and asserts that the law is discriminatory, as more than 90 percent of the state’s agricultural workers are Latino.

The groups are asking the court to block implementation of the law as litigation proceeds. They gathered Wednesday outside the legislature for a press conference about the matter.

“Politicians that are also growers shouldn’t pass self-serving laws simply because they don’t want their workers to unionize,” said FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez. “With the continuation of Jim Crow-era laws that aim to stop a now almost entirely Latino workforce from organizing, this is an affront to freedom of association and smacks of racism. Companies like Reynolds American should be embarrassed that growers in their supply chains are attacking the very farm workers who make their companies’ wealth.”

More than 100,000 farmworkers provide labor to North Carolina farms, helping to generate more than $12 billion for the state economy, according to the ACLU. The vast majority are Latinos and work seasonally, many under temporary visas.

SB617 bars farm worker unions from entering into agreements with employers to have union dues transferred from paychecks — even if the union members want it, and even if the employer agrees to the arrangement.

(Photo by Carol Brooke)

Because North Carolina is a so-called “right-to-work” state, dues deductions can only occur when individual workers choose to have dues deducted, according to the ACLU. Many of FLOC’s members are guest-workers who lack ready access to U.S. bank accounts, credit cards and other means of making regular union dues payments, and they therefore rely on dues transfer arrangements to pay their union dues. If those arrangements become invalid, the union will be required to divert most of its limited resources to collecting dues individually from each worker.

The law also prohibits agricultural producers from signing any agreement with a union relating to a lawsuit, such as a settlement in which an employer agrees to recognize a union, or a collective bargaining agreement that includes a promise not to sue. FLOC has used such voluntary agreements with employers to secure critical improvements in working conditions at farms, such as higher wages and an end to exploitative recruitment fees and blacklisting.

In addition, FLOC has successfully challenged tobacco giants, such as Reynolds American to acknowledge their responsibility for the conditions workers face in their supply chains. The new law introduces major obstacles to FLOC’s ability to renew its existing agreements and pursue more in the future.

(Photo by Carol Brooke)

“Farmworkers are among the lowest paid and most vulnerable workers in the state,” said Clermont Ripley, a staff attorney with the NC Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project. NC Justice Center is the parent organization of NC Policy Watch. “They arguably need a union more than anyone else. In passing the Farm Act, our legislature — staunchly opposed to organized labor and unquestioningly deferential to the interests of big business — has further weakened the ability of farmworkers to protect themselves from unscrupulous employers.”

The law’s primary sponsor was Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Duplin, Johnston, Sampson), who owns Jackson Farming Company and was recently sued for wage theft by Latino farm workers who were helped by FLOC.

Rep. Jimmy Dixon (R-Duplin, Wayne), an owner of Jimmy Dixon farm in Duplin County, was the only legislator to speak in favor of the anti-worker provisions in the bill on the House floor. He said the law was necessary because “there seems to be a growing wave of folks that are interested in farm labor.”

Courts & the Law, News

SCSJ’s Anita Earls to run for NC Supreme Court seat in 2018 election

Anita Earls, a civil rights attorney and founding Executive Director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, announced she would run for a seat on the state Supreme Court. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

A prominent civil rights attorney announced Wednesday morning that she will make a bid to move to the other side of the bench next year.

Anita Earls, who is the Executive Director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ), will run for a North Carolina Supreme Court seat in the 2018 election, challenging incumbent Justice Barbara Jackson, who is a registered Republican. Jackson’s eight-year term ends next year.

Earls, 57 of Durham, made the announcement at the Democratic Party headquarters on Hillsborough Street.

“In light of recent attacks on the independence of North Carolina’s judiciary, and on the right of all citizens to cast a ballot that is counted equally, it is clear to me that I have to not just talk the talk, but also must have the courage to walk the walk,” she said. “I understand the difference between being an advocate and being a jurist, and I want the opportunity to use my experience to help ensure equal justice for all North Carolinians in a new role.”

Prior to founding SCSJ, Earls was director of advocacy at the UNC Center for Civil Rights and director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, according to her online biographical information. She was a deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice during the Clinton Administration.

SCSJ will continue on, Earls said.

“I am so proud of the Southern Coalition,” she said. “We have strong leadership. The Board is engaging in an appropriate transition process and I’m just excited to see the things that they’ll be able to accomplish in the next 10 years.”

Earls has also served on the Equal Access to Justice Commission and the North Carolina Board of Elections. She has taught at Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Maryland.

She is the lead attorney in North Carolina v. Covington, the state’s ongoing racial gerrymandering case, and for the League of Women Voters in a partisan gerrymandering case that went to trial last month in a federal court. She also led a challenge in state court to uphold North Carolinians’ right to vote even without a photo ID.

Earls will phase out her role in the ongoing cases by the end of the year so that she can campaign, she said. She said the qualification she hopes voters will evaluate most is whether she can fairly and faithfully apply the law equally to everyone whose case comes before the Supreme Court.

“I believe my record demonstrates that I have an unflinching dedication to the principle of equality before the law,” she added.

She noted later that she had sued Democrats and Republicans alike in the past.

Former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt and current U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield released statements endorsing Earls.

“Anita’s service to North Carolina is undeniable,” Hunt said. “She has been at the forefront of the fight for fair maps and voting rights in our state, and she has dedicated her life to achieving fairness, equality, and justice. I look forward to supporting Anita as she seeks to represent all North Carolinians from the bench of North Carolina’s Supreme Court.”

Butterfield said Earls has the intellect and integrity needed on North Carolina State Supreme Court.

“She understands the importance of an independent judiciary and will be a justice that will only make decisions based on the facts and the law,” he added. “As a former N. C. State Supreme Court Justice, I know Anita has the character and work ethic to serve with distinction. Anita will make us proud.”

Lawmakers have been taking aim at the independence of the judiciary in the last year. They passed measures that require judges and justices to run for election using party labels. After Justice Mike Morgan’s win in the 2016 election, the state Supreme Court was tipped to a 4-3 Democratic majority.

There was also a bill passed in the most recent special session that eliminates judicial primaries next year, which means anyone who meets state requirements to run for a Supreme Court seat can be put on the 2018 ballot. Jackson has already established her bid for reelection and Earls is the only other candidate thus far to announce her plans to run for the seat.

The last time a judicial primary was eliminated for a North Carolina Supreme Court seat was in November 2004. Justice Paul Newby won over seven other candidates with 22.59 percent of the vote, according to the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

The candidate filing period for all 2018 judicial offices is from noon on June 18 to noon on June 29.

There are other changes that could be made before next year’s elections, including a potential merit selection plan that the Senate has been touting. Earls said the voters will ultimately make the decision about how judges are selected.

“I think it is so important that voters decide who our judges are, not politicians,” Earls said.