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Senate committee to meet first about judicial redistricting, not merit selection, two-year judicial terms

The agenda for the Senate Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting leaves out two key points Republicans have either recently discussed or threatened: merit selection and a proposed constitutional amendment to shorten all judges and justices terms to two years.

The committee will meet for the first time today at 1 p.m. in room 643 of the Legislative Office Building. Senate President Pro Tem named mostly GOP members to the committee last month.

At the time, Berger released a statement that the committee would consider all options on how the state selects judges, “including the House’s judicial redistricting bill, merit selection models, retention elections, and, if we maintain a system of elections, their frequency and partisan structure.”

Today’s agenda, released only in the last day, leaves out all of those “options” except Rep. Justin Burr’s (R-Stanley, Montgomery) plan to redistrict all judicial and prosecutorial districts.

The Senate committee is expected to hear from Burr and discuss his plan, House Bill 717, which has already passed in the other chamber. They will also hear from Gerry Cohen, former special counsel to the legislature, and Michael Crowell, a former UNC School of Government professor, on judicial redistricting.

Representatives from District Court and Superior Court Judges’ Conferences and the Administrative Office of the Courts will also speak about judicial redistricting at the meeting.

The committee will conclude the meeting by considering other topics for future meetings. Today’s meeting is open to the public. Documents legislators will have are online here.

The updated judicial redistricting maps are below.

Courts & the Law, News

UPDATED: NC Court of Appeals OKs Senate confirmation hearings for Cooper nominees

Note: This story has been updated to reflect Cooper’s and GOP legislative leaders’ responses.

The North Carolina Senate has the power to hold confirmation hearings to approve Gov. Roy Cooper’s Cabinet nominees, according to the state Court of Appeals.

A three-judge appellate panel on Tuesday published a favorable opinion to lawmakers in Cooper v. Berger, a separation of powers lawsuit over the Senate’s right to have a say in Cooper’s picks to head state departments. It affirms a lower court’s opinion in the case.

GOP lawmakers passed an “advice and consent” statute in an emergency session last December after Cooper, a Democrat, defeated incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican.

The lawsuit over the statute is part of an ongoing battle for power between Cooper and Republican lawmakers, who hold a super-majority in the legislature. The Senate did not ultimately reject any of Cooper’s nominees.

“While a provision of the Constitution mandates separation of powers between the branches … another provision also reserves to the Senate ‘the advice and consent’ of the Governor’s appointments of constitutional officers,” the opinion states. “If separation of powers does not prohibit or constrain the Senate from confirming officers created by the Constitution, separation of powers does not otherwise prohibit ‘advice and consent’ being applied to gubernatorial appointees over agencies the General Assembly created, and which agencies can be amended or repealed by statute. ‘[A] constitution cannot violate itself.'”

The appellate judges on the panel are Rick Elmore, Donna Stroud and John Tyson.

Cooper responded to the opinion at a Council of State meeting.

“This case will ultimately be decided by the State Supreme Court,” he said. “With the makeup of this three-judge panel we fully expected this result. They essentially kicked it upstairs to the Supreme Court. We believe that these arguments are sound and that these laws will end up being declared unconstitutional by the State Supreme Court.”

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore did not return a request from NC Policy Watch for comment after the opinion. They did, however, release this joint statement online:

“As the court noted, ‘a constitution cannot violate itself,’ and ‘a legislature that has the authority to create executive agencies also has the authority to require legislative advice and consent.’ It is in the people’s interest for their elected representatives to conduct a fair, constitutional and transparent review of the governor’s cabinet secretaries.

Gov. Cooper has no legal grounds to continue his pursuit of unchecked power and should quit wasting taxpayer money on divisive, baseless and self-serving lawsuits.”

Courts & the Law, News

Democracy NC compiles responses to legislature’s attempts to change the courts

The North Carolina General Assembly has honed in this year on changing the makeup of the state’s judiciary, and a lot of folks have had a lot to say about it.

Democracy North Carolina recently compiled a seven-page document that highlights responses from judges, Bar leaders and other judicial stakeholders.

“Politicians in Raleigh have tried to dramatically change North Carolina’s voting rules, but the courts have repeatedly overruled them,” the document states. “Now they’re attempting to take control of the courts by changing the way judges are elected in North Carolina. Bills currently circulating in the N.C. House and Senate would shorten judicial terms, gerrymander court districts, or eliminate elections to allow politicians to appoint judges. In response, leaders from the legal community (regardless of position or party politics) have overwhelmingly opposed these proposals, pushing back against attacks on the judiciary.”

The list includes news articles from local media outlets and national coverage, and is broken down by topic and bill number with links to each article. You can read the full document here.

Courts & the Law, News

House Majority Leader alleges court corruption in redistricting case at GOP fundraiser

House Majority Leader John Bell IV

House Majority Leader John Bell IV alleged corruption in a recent racial gerrymandering case at a GOP fundraiser in Goldsboro.

The event was hosted Oct. 24 by the Lenoir-Wayne Republican Men’s Club at the Walnut Creek Country Club. Bell spoke about a number of topics, but notably indicated that he felt like lawmakers would “lose” in court over redistricting litigation.

The North Carolina Democratic Party released the audio from the event. Bell did not return phone and email messages from NC Policy Watch for comment. He represents Craven, Greene, Lenoir and Wayne counties.

You can listen to the audio here. Bell’s comments about redistricting begin around 1:10:40.

“I feel like we’re probably going to lose our case on redistricting,” he says. “It does’t look good.”

His prediction wasn’t incorrect, although the case is still pending. The federal three-judge panel in North Carolina v. Covington officially appointed a special master this week to review and potentially redraw some state House and Senate districts that could still be unconstitutional.

Bell, at the fundraiser, alleged that there was an inappropriate relationship between the judges in the case and the plaintiffs. He did not elaborate on details, nor did he provide any proof of his allegations.

“When you talk about corruption, let me tell you something; did you ever see the plaintiffs and the judges hanging out with each other?” he asked.

He later adds that the case will end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I feel that they’ll actually, the Supreme Court, will agree with us,” he said.

Courts & the Law, News

GOP mum after special master appointment in racial gerrymandering case

Social media was buzzing yesterday with reactions from everyone but GOP lawmakers after a federal three-judge panel appointed a special master to review and potentially redraw some state House and Senate districts.

The panel announced its intention last week to appoint Stanford Law professor Nathaniel Persily as special master in North Carolina v. Covington but made it official in an order Wednesday overriding lawmakers’ objections.

Legislative leaders who have previously been quick on social media to either commend or criticize judges after court rulings were silent after the order was released.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore and redistricting committee co-chairs Re. David Lewis (R-Harnett) and Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell) still have yet to comment publicly.

A spokeswoman for Berger, Amy Auth, gave a statement to the News & Observer on behalf of Lewis and Hise. She did not return a request for comment from NC Policy Watch.

“Less than 24 hours after receiving final input from all parties, the court has issued a lengthy order to seize the constitutional and sovereign right to draw districts from North Carolina’s elected representatives and instead hand it to an unelected California college professor with clear conflicts of interest,” she told the newspaper. “We are disturbed the court has apparently planned all along to achieve its preferred political outcome and are reviewing our legal options.”

The North Carolina GOP party also did not return a request for comment about the order.

Allison Riggs, senior attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and an attorney for the plaintiffs in the case, reiterated that the court has not yet decided which objections they will sustain, but said they remain hopeful.

“We’re still cautiously optimistic and hopeful this will lead us to finally have fair and constitutional districts for the 2018 elections,” she said.

Democrats responded to the order quickly on social media. Some of their reactions: