Courts & the Law, News

State Supreme Court Chief Justice talks court technology, legislative current events

State Supreme Court Justice Mark Martin spoke Monday at the John Locke Foundation about the future of North Carolina courts. (Photo by Nelle Dunlap)

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin spoke today at the John Locke Foundation about the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice he convened and the future of the court system.

Martin talked mostly about court technology and an e-filing system that is in the process of being implemented but he also discussed some political issues, including raising the age of juvenile prosecution and the opioid epidemic.

Here are some highlights from event:

On e-filing:

“It’s a brave new world, and I think the thing that should encourages us in the e-courts effort is that 76 percent of Americans, according to the most recent polling data, want more court resources available online – and if you go below [age] 40, the number skyrockets to 86 percent.”

On a new Courthouse and Cyber Security Task Force Martin has commissioned:

“I’d rather be proactive as Chief Justice and make sure that our court facilities are safe than wake up a year and a half from now and realize that we have people that have been harmed because of our inaction, because government did not work well.”

On reasons the state is behind in court technology:

“Often times, we are behind other branches of government because we have not always been a favored beneficiary of appropriated funds.”

On efforts to raise the juvenile age of prosecution from 16 and 17 years old to 18 years old: 

Martin explained that if a 16-year-old is arrested for stealing a $12 pendant from the mall, her name goes on the Internet and she quickly moves through the adult criminal system without a second thought and without any effort to restore the young person.

He added that 49 other states have made the change to raise the age.

“Why have we not made already made the change? I think it’s just inertia; government’s good at inertia, right?” Read more

Courts & the Law, News

Breaking: Court tells parties in racial gerrymandering case it intends to act promptly

A three-judge federal District Court panel intends to act promptly once the U.S. Supreme Court transfers jurisdiction over a case involving racially gerrymandered legislative maps.

A court document released late Friday informs parties in the case, North Carolina v. Covington, of the court’s plan. The motion was in response to the plaintiff’s in the case filing a request yesterday to expedite the process, and the court, in the notice, invited defendants to respond as “expeditiously as possible.”

The notice also directs all parties to address other aspects of the case, including:

  • Describing what steps, if any, the State of North Carolina has taken to satisfy its remedial obligations under this Court’s August 15, 2016, Memorandum Opinion and Order; and
  • If the the State has failed to take any meaningful steps to satisfy its remedial obligations under this Court’s August 15, 2016, Memorandum Opinion and Order, addressing whether the State is entitled to any additional time to comply with the Court’s August 15, 2016, Memorandum Opinion and Order.

The court’s order that the Supreme Court affirmed mandated that North Carolina redraw its 28 unconstitutional, racially gerrymandered districts and enjoined the state from holding any more elections after November 2016 under those maps.

The Supreme Court sent back to the lower court its remedial order for special elections but gave instructions on other considerations it should make before deciding such a remedy.

The notice issued by the lower court late Friday also instructs parties in the case to address those considerations, indicating special elections this year might not be off the table yet.

Gov. Roy Cooper released the following statement on the new order:

“I am pleased the court intends to act swiftly. There is no reason for Republican legislators to drag their heels in correcting their wrong after the Supreme Court affirmed their map to be unconstitutional.”

Courts & the Law, News

Expert: Now is the time for voters, courts to hold legislators accountable in redistricting process

The top news this week, other than the former FBI Director’s enthralling testimony, has undoubtedly been the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that 28 of North Carolina’s legislative districts are unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered.

The local political battle that ensued in the day’s following the court’s ruling has been just as captivating, but like election law, North Carolinians need to focus on the future, according to at least one expert — that means shifting attention from Twitter to email and texting to phone calls.

“The most important thing for people to know is that they have a responsibility for holding their legislators accountable in the redistricting process,” said Guy-Uriel Charles, founding director of the Duke Law Center on Law, Race and Politics. “People have to pay attention to redistricting and to line drawing and to the way that districts are constructed, and they ought to demand fairness from their legislators. It’s hard to do it at the ballot box because once the districts are already constructed, that makes it harder for the voter to have the impact that the voter might want to have. In many senses, the die is already cast.”

Charles said it would be reasonable for people to say “gee, these legislative districts are unconstitutional, therefore the legislators are unconstitutional and therefore anything that they’ve done is illegal and does not have any effect,” but that’s not the way election law typically works. Read more

Courts & the Law, News

New motions filed seek to set deadlines for state to redraw racially gerrymandered legislative maps

Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the newest redistricting case have filed a series of motions with the appellate court to get the redistricting ball moving while waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to formalize its orders. Their timeline sets a June 22 deadline for redistricting.

The Supreme Court earlier this week affirmed that 28 state House and Senate districts were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. It vacated the lower court’s remedy for special elections and remanded it back to the three-judge panel for further proceedings with instruction about considerations that should be made with such an order.

Gov. Roy Cooper tried to force the legislature’s hand into redrawing the unconstitutional maps right away by calling a special session today but lawmakers declared it unconstitutional and then went home for the weekend.

Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) later tweeted “we will redraw previously legal lines when Court orders,” and “The law has changed since 2011. The #ncga will change with law.”

The motions filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina seek to expedite the process for which the state has to pass a remedial plan to correct the unconstitutional gerrymanders.

The first motion seeks to set the following deadlines for the General Assembly to act:

a. The General Assembly of the State of North Carolina is given the opportunity to draw new House and Senate district plans for North Carolina House Districts 5, 7, 12, 21, 24, 29, 31, 32, 33, 38, 42, 43, 48, 57, 58, 60, 99, 102, and 107; and Senate Districts 4, 5, 14, 20, 21, 28, 32, 38, and 40, through and until 5 p.m. on June 22, 2017.

b. The defendants shall file the new maps with the Court within seven days of passage.

c. Within seven days of passage, the defendants also shall file:

i. transcripts of all committee hearings and floor debates;

ii. the “stat pack” for the enacted plans;

iii. a description of the process the General Assembly followed in enacting the new plans, including the identity of all participants involved in the process;

iv. the criteria the General Assembly applied in drawing the districts in the new plans, including the extent to which race was a factor in drawing any district in which the black voting-age population (BVAP) is greater than 50%; and

v. as to any district intentionally drawn with a BVAP greater than 50%, the factual basis upon which the General Assembly concluded that the Voting Rights Act obligated it to draw the district at greater than 50% BVAP.

d. The plaintiffs may file any objections within seven days of the filing of the redistricting plan with the Court. The defendants may respond seven days thereafter.

e. If the State fails to redistrict by June 22, 2017, the plaintiffs may file a proposed redistricting plan no later than June 26, 2017.

The second motion asks for the court to have an expedited evidentiary hearing and the third asks for the court to expedite consideration of the first two motions.

The first motion states that when attorneys for the plaintiffs conferred with attorneys for the defendants on the motion there was a mixed response: “Legislative Defendants indicated that they oppose this Motion. The State Board of Elections Defendant takes no position on this Motion, and the State of North Carolina Defendant agrees that the public interest calls for a prompt decision on the possibility of a special election in 2017.”

The same attorneys that are asking for the appellate court to expedite its process already asked for the Supreme Court to quickly issue mandates formalizing its opinion to transfer jurisdiction. The state oppose the request, according to the document, and Chief Justice John Roberts has asked for a response by 3 p.m. Tuesday.

The issue of the state redrawing its unconstitutional maps is separate from the issue of whether there will be special elections this year, but one dictates the other and the clock is ticking on the possibility of elections this year.

Courts & the Law, News

NC attorney sues state over exclusion of unaffiliated voters from state, county boards of election

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A North Carolina attorney is suing the state over its new Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement because unaffiliated voters are prohibited from serving on it or any other county elections boards.

Michael Crowell, who is registered as an unaffiliated voter in Carrboro, claims in an 11-page lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina that the law creating the new Board violates his constitutional rights to equal protection, freedom of speech and freedom of association.

Crowell is a well-known attorney who worked on a number of election cases while he was with the Tharrington Smith Law Firm in Raleigh, with the most recent being the 2016 lawsuit to require an election for former Justice Bob Edmunds’ seat on the state Supreme Court.

This is the second lawsuit over Senate Bill 68 (albeit the first in federal court) and the third lawsuit challenging the merging of the State Board of Elections and the State Ethics Commission.

Under the new law, the State Board will consist of eight members — four Democrats and four Republicans appointed by the governor from a list of nominations from each state party chair. County boards of election were expanded to four members, to be appointed by the State Board from nominations by the Democratic and Republican parties, with equal numbers from each party, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit adds that there has never been an unaffiliated voter on the State Board of Elections and there are currently no unaffiliated voters on any of the 100 county boards of election.

As of April 15, there were 2,639,102 voters registered in the state as affiliated with the Democratic Party; 2,047,468 registered as affiliated with the Republican Party; 32,375 registered as affiliated with the Libertarian Party; and 2,018,786 registered as unaffiliated, according to the lawsuit.

Broken down further, there are more unaffiliated voters registered than either Democrats or Republicans in eight of the state’s 100 counties; more unaffiliated voters registered than Republicans in an additional 39 counties; and more unaffiliated voters registered than Democrats in another 22 counties.

Crowell states in the lawsuit that he has been registered to vote in North Carolina continuously since 1970 — he was registered as a Democrat until about 1994 when he changed his registration to unaffiliated and has been so registered since then. He states that he is qualified to serve on the Board of Elections and lists those qualifications.

“General Statutes 163A-2 and 163-30 and related sections discriminate against plaintiff, an unaffiliated voter, by denying him the same opportunity as registered Democrats and Republicans to be a member of the State Board or a county board of elections and participate in the administration of elections in North Carolina,” the suit states.

Crowell is seeking that the law be declared unconstitutional and void and that the defendants be enjoined from enforcing those statutes, and specifically enjoined from appointing only Democrats and Republicans on the new State Board and the county boards of election.

He also seeks to have the court order the defendants to consider and appoint unaffiliated voters to all boards in proportion to their percentage of all registered voters in the state.