Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Justice for Niecey: Durham agrees to stop housing juveniles, adults together after death of teen

Youth advocates and community members gathered last July outside the Durham County Detention Facility to remember the life of Uniece “Niecey” Fennell, a teen who committed suicide while housed there last year. They also called for policy changes to prevent such a situation. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Durham County will stop housing juveniles and adults together in detention as part of a settlement agreement with the family of 17-year-old Uniece “Niecey” Fennell, who committed suicide two years ago at the jail there.

North Carolina does not currently keep track of how many children are locked up with adults in its county detention facilities. Durham County already made some changes following Fennell’s death and a subsequent investigation, but her family and juvenile justice advocates demanded better.

“Losing a child is the most difficult thing I have ever experienced,” said Julia Graves, Fennell’s mother. “It was important to our family that Durham change the way it treats children in its custody. It gives me some peace of mind to know that if this settlement is approved, children detained in the future will be treated more humanely. There is nothing that can take away the pain we still feel from losing Niecey. But there is comfort in knowing that part of her legacy will be making conditions safer for other children.”

The lawsuit Fennell’s family filed and the settlement agreement were filed simultaneously with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina and are currently awaiting the court’s approval. The Southern Coalition for Social Justice represents the family in the case and negotiated the settlement with Durham County and the Durham County Sheriff’s Office.

The agreement to end the practice of co-housing juveniles and adults, if approved, would be legally-binding and enforceable and would be achievable through the expansion of the Durham County Youth Home or the development of a reasonable alternative.

Other agreements in the settlement include:

  • The removal of all identifiable suicide hazards from the Durham County Detention Facility by the end of 2019 (many hanging hazards, including those identified by a Plaintiff’s expert, have already been remedied);
  • The adoption of a formal policy prioritizing beds in the Durham County Youth Home for Durham County juveniles;
  • Mandatory Crisis Intervention Training for all Durham County detention officers;
  • Staffing of a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who is able to consult a psychiatrist who is on call 24/7 or available to come to the facility whenever called by the LCSW;
  • Notification to guardians of unemancipated juveniles when they face a life-threatening medical condition, attempt suicide, or make a threat of self-harm; and,
  • A payment of $650,000 to Fennell’s mother

The family was represented by Ian Mance, Whitley Carpenter and Ivy Johnson of the SCSJ’s criminal justice project. Hank Ehlies of the Policy Council for Law Enforcement and the Mentally Ill was also part of the legal team.

“We appreciate all of the hard work on the part of Sheriff [Clarence] Birkhead and all parties involved that went into creating this settlement agreement,” Mance said. “It is now clear to all parties that it is unacceptable to house children and adults in the same spaces in detention facilities. We are optimistic that the settlement agreement can help us move forward with policies that make sense and protect children. It’s important to the family of Uniece Fennell that something positive comes from this tragedy.”

North Carolina is the only state in the nation that still defines a juvenile as someone under the age of 16. Lawmakers passed language to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18 years old, but that measure won’t take effect until Dec. 1. Until then, state law only requires complete sight and sound separation for juveniles under the age of 16.

Counties, however, can make changes before “Raise the Age” takes effect by housing all youth under the age of 18 in separate pods from adults and by choosing to follow the sight and sound separation guidelines.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

SCSJ makes interim director permanent ahead of Supreme Court argument

Kareem Crayton

Kareem Crayton was announced Wednesday as the new executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ). He has served as the organization’s interim director since January 2018.

“We are proud to name Dr. Kareem Crayton as the Executive Director of our organization,” said Ryan Roberson, Chair of SCSJ’s Board of Directors. “It is abundantly clear to the Board that Dr. Crayton is the right person to continue leading SCSJ forward.”

Crayton was brought on after current state Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls, former executive director and founder of SCSJ, resigned to pursue running for a seat on the high court.

Crayton is a Montgomery, Alabama, native and was managing partner of Crimcard Consulting services, a firm that he founded to assist communities globally in their effort to seek political efficacy and equality. He had served on faculties including Harvard, the University of Southern California, the University of Alabama, the University of North Carolina and most recently, Vanderbilt University Law School.

The SCSJ announcement comes less than a week before the organization takes its second case in two years to the U.S. Supreme Court. Next week’s cases, Rucho v. League of Women Voters of North Carolina paired with sibling case Rucho v. Common Cause, are partisan gerrymandering challenges to North Carolina’s 2016 congressional redistricting plan. The high court could establish a national standard for how lawmakers use partisanship in the redistricting process.

Crayton said in a news release he is convinced this this pivotal moment in time in America makes the most sophisticated and mission-oriented work of civil rights advocates more crucial than ever.

“SCSJ’s work remains vital to protect voting rights and to advocate for key reforms in the criminal justice and youth justice arenas as well,” he added. “Our distinct brand of work as a community-centered organization has impact not only in the South but across the country. I am therefore proud to continue leading this talented and creative team as it defines a story that is true to SCSJ’s original vision while drafting a new chapter in its second decade of service.”

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Wake County judge: Voter ID challenge can move forward in courts

A state constitutional challenge to North Carolina’s new voter ID law can move forward, according to a Wednesday order from Wake County Superior Court Judge Vince Rozier Jr.

Six plaintiffs filed the lawsuit alleging the voter ID law discriminates against and disproportionately impacts minority voters, creates separate classes of voters, imposes a cost and property requirement for voting and impedes the ability of voters to engage in political expression and speech. Legislative defendants responded with a motion to dismiss the suit, which Rozier denied after hearing arguments earlier this month.

Chief Justice Cheri Beasley will now appoint a three-judge panel to hear the case as a whole.

“We appreciate that the court recognized that the voters who brought their case deserve to have a full hearing in front of a three-judge panel,” said Allison Riggs, Senior Voting Rights Attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “We look forward to representing plaintiffs as they continue to challenge this discriminatory and unconstitutional law.”

One part of a claim brought by plaintiffs was dismissed by the judge because none of the plaintiffs in the case who were under the age of sixty-five possessed an acceptable state-issued ID that was more than one year expired. Rozier wrote in the order that because the plaintiffs did not fall within the category of voters potentially affected by the claim, there was a lack of standing.

Lawmakers fast-tracked a bill this week, that was signed Thursday by Gov. Roy Cooper, that delays the implementation of the voter ID bill until the 2020 elections.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice is representing plaintiffs in the voter ID litigation, along with pro-bono counsel from the New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. The Southern Coalition for Social Justice also represented plaintiffs who successfully challenged the state’s 2013 monster voter suppression law that was ultimately struck down by the U.S Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Read Rozier’s order below.



18 CVS 15292 VMR Order on Facial v as Applied (Text)

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Advocates: The time is now for SCOTUS to set partisan gerrymandering standard

In less than two weeks, attorneys will be back in front of the U.S. Supreme Court to argue a North Carolina partisan gerrymandering case — but this time, they hope, things will be different.

“The North Carolina case is the best test case to right the wrongs in North Carolina and frankly to set a standard throughout the country,” said Kathay Feng, national redistricting director at Common Cause. “Paired with the Maryland case, which is an example of Democratic gerrymandering, we believe that this is the moment for SCOTUS to clearly articulate a partisan gerrymandering that is unconstitutional.”

Oral arguments in sibling cases Common Cause v. Rucho and League of Women Voters v. Rucho will be heard March 26. A federal court has already found twice in the partisan gerrymandering cases that the state’s 2016 congressional redistricting plan was unconstitutional.

Feng gave an overview of the cases Wednesday in a teleconference. She said the undisputed facts of the case make it different from others heard by the high court in the past — mainly that GOP legislative leaders said on the record they drew districts to maximize partisan gain.

Daniel Tokaji, an election law and First Amendment professor from Moritz College of Law, agreed and said the strongest legal basis of the Common Cause case was the violation of First Amendment associational rights. The state Democratic Party is a party in the case.

Tokaji said there is 50 years of Supreme Court precedent protecting associational rights and that in some cases, voting is an associational right.

“It’s not only the affect on who gets elected to office that courts should consider … but also effects on the disfavored political party and its supporters outside the electoral process,” he said.

That includes difficulties fundraising, registering voters, generating support, recruiting candidates and accomplishing policy objectives. North Carolina has undisputed evidence of all of it.

Tokaji said the North Carolina best captures the type of injury inflicted by gerrymandering, a systemic injury to a group of people. It also provides the court an opportunity to set a nuanced standard — just because there is intent for partisan gerrymandering doesn’t mean a map is unconstitutional; the court can allow states to present reasons for gerrymandering, like keeping districts compact or geographical considerations.

“To me the biggest reason for being hopeful here — we don’t know for sure what the court is going to do — is that the evidence about how bad the problem has gotten and how toxic it is for our politics as a whole becomes clearer and clearer over time and this isn’t a problem that’s going to fix itself,” he said.

Love Caesar, 20, a student at North Carolina A&T University and a democracy fellow with Common Cause NC, described the effects of partisan gerrymandering on her campus and said it’s very disheartening for students.

“There’s no other college in this country divided into two congressional districts, especially right down the middle,” she said. “It’s so blatantly clear how it’s done. The United States has a history of taking the Black vote and suppressing it, so it’s clear how this gerrymandering dilutes the people’s power at A&T.”

She added that she thinks it’s important for the Supreme Court to set a precedent now because “it’s setting an example to us who are future leaders of this country … about how they want us to act in the future.”

“Will they act with integrity and strike down unconstitutional gerrymandering?” she asked. “I would really, really love to vote on a constitutional map.”

The high court will also hear a Maryland case involving Democratic partisan gerrymandering.

Courts & the Law, Governor Roy Cooper, News

Gov. Cooper names appeals court judge, Mark Davis, to N.C. Supreme Court

Newly appointed state Supreme Court Justice Mark Davis

North Carolina will soon have a full state Supreme Court, after Gov. Roy Cooper announced his appointment Monday of state Court of Appeals Judge Mark Davis to the high court.

Davis will fill the seat once occupied by new Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. Cooper named Beasley to the chief justice role last month when the former chief justice, Mark Martin, retired at the end of February to take a job as the dean of Regent University’s law school.

Davis will take over Beasley’s former associate justice position, arriving in time to hear oral arguments when the state Supreme Court convenes in April. He also intends to run for election to a full eight-year term in 2020.

“I know Judge Davis is dedicated to his work and to serving the people of North Carolina, and I know he will continue to serve with distinction as an associate justice on the Supreme Court,” Cooper said.

This is the second time Davis, a registered Democrat, has succeeded Beasley. He was appointed to her Court of Appeals seat by former Gov. Bev Perdue in 2012, and won election to a full eight-year term in 2014. Davis was previously Perdue’s general counsel and, before that, served as a special deputy attorney general at the North Carolina Department of Justice.

Davis, who was born in Onslow County, also worked for more than a decade in the litigation section of the Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice firm, now Womble Bonds Dickinson.

Davis’ appointment shifts the balance of the Supreme Court to a 6-1 Democratic majority. Martin, the former chief justice, was a Republican, and GOP leaders had been hopeful Cooper would appoint a Republican to the high court to keep some balance. Cooper has said before that he would appoint the best person for the job.

Both Beasley’s and Davis’ seats will be up for election in 2020. Davis’ appointment also leaves a vacancy on the state Court of Appeals. Cooper will have the power to fill it.

Several people have already announced their intentions to run for a seat on the state Supreme Court, including the only Republican on the court, Justice Paul Newby, who will challenge Beasley for the leadership position.

Other likely candidates in 2020 include Phil Berger Jr., who currently serves on the state Court of Appeals – he is also the son of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger – and former state Senate member Tamara Barringer, a Wake County attorney.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

(Note: Managing Editor Billy Ball contributed to this report.)