Courts & the Law, News

New York Times takes on partisan state court attacks

The New York Times’ Editorial Board published a piece Sunday taking lawmakers to task in states where partisan attacks on state courts are being leveraged.

The opinion article cited specific examples Wisconsin, Kansas, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, Republican legislators in North Carolina, who recently gerrymandered themselves into a veto-proof majority, have taken repeated aim at the state courts. On party-line votes, they reduced the size of the state’s midlevel appeals court, preventing Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat elected in 2016, from filling seats. They required judicial candidates running at all levels to identify themselves by partisan affiliation. They tried, and failed, to expand the state’s Supreme Court right before Mr. Cooper took office, in the hope of slipping a few extra appointments into the hands of the departing Republican governor, Pat McCrory. In a special session next month, they will attempt to gerrymander trial-court districts in favor of Republicans and to cut judicial terms from eight years to two. As one lawmaker justified it, “If you’re going to act like a legislator, perhaps you should run like one.”

The Editorial Board describes such bills as “terrible for the judiciary and harmful to democracy.” They also noted that even if bills aren’t passed, the message and publicity generated signal real consequences — especially for judges issuing what’s perceived as controversial or unpopular rulings.

The article also examines judicial elections and the public perception of the judiciary.

But no matter how judges get on the bench, the important thing is to keep them as insulated as possible from outside political pressures. Instead, many lawmakers in recent years have been doing the opposite, treating judges like political pawns who are, or should be, more beholden to a partisan platform or public pressure than to the law. For those lawmakers to then complain about judges acting like legislators is rich.

Courts & the Law, News

Forgot about judicial redistricting? Don’t worry, it will be back next week

Judicial redistricting and reform seemed to gain a lot of steam during the legislative session earlier this year, but things came to a grinding halt after lawmakers released an eighth and ninth set of maps just before heading home.

Those maps, released in February, redraw prosecutorial, district and superior court districts, which would change the way judges and district attorneys would be elected across the state. The maps were never discussed, and they were dubbed “Option B” and “Option C” — “Option A” was released two weeks prior.

The Joint Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting is set to meet at 1 p.m. Wednesday, and while a public agenda has yet to be released, it’s likely members will address the new proposed maps.

It’s also possible, however — given lawmakers’ track record when it comes to judicial redistricting — that they could unveil totally new maps at the meeting.

None of the committee co-chairs – Representatives Justin Burr (R-Stanly, Montgomery) and David Lewis (R-Harnett) and Senators Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg), Warren Daniel (R-Burke, Cleveland) and Bill Rabon (Bladen) – returned an email this week asking about what would be discussed at the meeting.

NC Policy Watch has analyzed all three of the most recently proposed maps, Options A, B and C. You can read about those maps’ legislative and judicial impact here and here.

Another potential judicial reform that could be discussed at the meeting is a merit selection plan that would replace judicial elections with a nomination and appointment process.

The meeting is open to the public and will be held in room 643 of the Legislative Office Building. You can stream audio from the meeting here.

The short legislative session this year starts May 16. Lawmakers have said they plan to take up and possibly vote on judicial redistricting and reform proposals.

Courts & the Law, News

Cooper, legislature battle in court over who controls millions in federal, VW funds

Attorneys for Gov. Roy Cooper and the legislature were back in court Wednesday — this time to battle over who controls federal block grant funds and the money distributed from a Volkswagen settlement.

There are three federal block grants in particular that Cooper argues he is responsible for spending — a substance abuse prevention and treatment block grant, a maternal and child health block grant and a community development block grant. Federal funds for those grants total more than $107 million per fiscal year, according to the state budget.

Martin Warf, an attorney who represents Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, contends that the funds from those grants go through the state treasury and can be appropriated by the legislature per the state budget act.

Cooper’s attorney Jim Phillips argues that state law determining whether the legislative or executive branch is in charge of federal block grants has not been settled.

“Just because funds are in a bank account maintained by the state treasurer, that does not mean the funds belong to the state,” he added.

In a separate but similar issue, Phillips said the governor has been charged as the agent of the state with regard to funds from the Volkswagen settlement, which totals about $92 million. There was a certification form, he said, signed and submitted by Cooper that dictates his role with regard to spending.

“The General Assembly, despite the fact they are not contemplated in the federal court decree, stepped forward and took control of these custodial funds,” Phillips said. “Control of these custodial funds are beyond the legislature’s domain.”

All of the funds at the center of this battle must be used for specific and limited purposes no matter who controls them.

Cooper’s arguments center on his power to execute the federal laws associated with the custodial funds, but Warf said there is a difference between executing the law and following the law.

Following the law would mean that the legislature has the power to appropriate the funds in question, Warf added.

Superior Court Judge Henry Hight said he expected to make a decision in the case by Friday evening.

The complaints are part of a larger lawsuit over a power battle between Cooper and the legislature that is being heard piecemeal by different judges.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

New Elections, Ethics board met for first time with minimal disagreement

The full State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement got right to business Tuesday, appointing all 100 four-member county boards of elections and approving a petition to officially recognize the North Carolina Green Party.

It’s the first time the board has met with all nine newly-appointed members, though it was conducted via teleconference. There was only one disagreement along party lines at this meeting, and it involved the appointment of the Cleveland County Board of Elections.

The Board approved the first and second choice recommendations from the state Republican and Democratic parties for all county boards of elections, except in Cleveland, Halifax and Robeson. It was an 8-1 vote with John Lewis, a Republican board member, voting against it because he thought all counties should be included.

Vice Chairman Joshua Malcolm put forth a motion in Cleveland County to appoint Republicans’ second and third choices, which meant their top, experienced pick, Joseph “Wayne” King, would no longer serve.

Malcolm described it as a “judgement call” and said there were some concerns about how elections had been previously carried out in Cleveland County.

Stacy Eggers, a Republican board member, said it was a break from tradition. Lewis agreed and said it was a blatant partisan move and that the board should own up to that to be transparent.

Damon Circosta, the unaffiliated ninth member who was appointed to the board last week, tried to stay neutral and propose an amendment to also appoint the Democrats’ second and third choices, but Malcolm rejected it. Circosta ultimately voted with the Democratic board members in a 5-4 approval to not appoint King.

The county board members who were appointed Tuesday will serve until at least June 25, 2019 (full list below this post).

In other business, the board voted unanimously to recognize the Green Party as an official political party in North Carolina.

Recognition of the Green Party means voters will have another choice of party affiliation when registering to vote, according to a news release from the agency. Voters may register with the Democratic, Green, Libertarian or Republican parties, or they can register as unaffiliated.

It also means that Green Party candidates, chosen by convention in 2018, will appear on ballots in this year’s Nov. 6 general election.

The Board is updating and will distribute new voter registration forms that include the Green Party option. Until then, voters can register with the Green Party by checking the “Other” box and writing “Green” on the line in “Political Party Affiliation” section of the voter registration application.

The board also appointed panels to hear candidate challenges in six multi-county General Assembly districts. They are as follows (chair in bold):

  • House District 22: Bobby Ludlum, R-Bladen, chair; G.H. Wilson, D-Sampson; and Horace Bass, D-Sampson
  • House District 67: Karmen Mock, R-Stanly; Ronald Wayne Burris Jr., D-Stanly, chair; David Black, R-Cabarrus
  • Senate District 1: Johnny Sessoms III, D-Hertford; Alice Malesky, R-Currituck; William M. Sawyer, D-Camden; Donna Elms, R-Dare, chair; Alice Mackey, D-Hyde
  • Senate District 11: John Shallcross, R-Johnston, chair; Gordon C. Woodruff, D-Johnston; Kelly Shore, D-Nash
  • Senate District 21: Jeff Long, R-Cumberland; Harvey Wright Raynor III, D-Cumberland, chair; Robert Vaughn, R-Hoke
  • Senate District 34: Alan G. Carpenter, D-Iredell, chair; Paul Mills, R-Iredell; Claude Wiseman, R-Yadkin

See below for a full list of county boards of elections appointees:

CBE Appointments (Final) 03-27-2018 (3) by NC Policy Watch on Scribd

Defending Democracy, News

Siler City families facing eviction reach deal with chicken processing company

Lucia Salmeron and her family of four will receive $8,300 from Mountaire Farms to help with eviction. Mountaire purchased the land where Johnson’s Mobile Home Park sits and will pay that amount to each unit. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Mountaire Farms, a chicken processing company, will pay Siler City mobile home residents $8,300 to help with their eviction after purchasing the land their homes sit on.

There are 28 trailers in Johnson’s Mobile Home Park housing 60 adults and 50 children, most of whom would be facing homelessness without the financial assistance from Mountaire.

Mountaire, the nation’s seventh largest chicken producer, has been in negotiations with Johnson’s residents since January. They will pay $8,300 per trailer in several installments, according to a news release from the Hispanic Liaison, a Chatham County nonprofit helping the residents.

Johnson’s residents will have until July 31 to move out and they have not had to pay lot rent ($210 per month) since November. They will continue to be able to live lot rent free, which amounts to another $1,890 in savings for the families.

“From the beginning, the residents have been united and determined to advocate for fair and just compensation for their families,” said Ilana Dubester, Executive Director of the Hispanic Liaison. “They faced this crisis together with dignity and courage. The residents made all decisions collectively regarding the terms of the negotiations.”

She also applauded Mountaire Farms for listening to the families’ concerns and for “doing the right thing” by increasing compensation from the original $5,000 they were offering.

“The residents are happy with the agreement and relieved that this aspect of their situation is now resolved,” Dubester said.

Most of the Johnson’s residents own their mobile homes and have invested an average of $10,000 in purchase and repairs.

Once negotiations with Mountaire reached an impasse, Johnson’s residents pleaded with Siler City and Chatham County elected officials for help.

Siler City commissioners pledged to modify and enforce stricter rental housing codes, address housing discrimination and look for opportunities for low-income housing development. Chatham County commissioners were supportive of the families and pledged to work on affordable workforce housing.

“It takes courage for immigrant families to stand up and fight for their rights,” said Emilio Vicente, Hispanic Liaison’s adult leadership program manager. “This was the first time that these residents had spoken with the press or their elected officials.”

Jorge L., whose last name was not released, is a Johnson’s resident and father of four. He said he was very grateful to the Hispanic Liaison for helping the residents come together as a community.

“By standing united, we were able to face a powerful corporation and reach an agreement for fair compensation for our families,” he said.

The organization will continue to work with families to help them secure housing and move out by July 31.