Courts & the Law, News

Brennan Center releases guide, model legislation for redistricting commissions

The Brennan Center for Justice has published a guide and model legislative bill to help states design citizen-led redistricting commissions just ahead of the next round of map-drawing.

Four states already have independent commissions up and running.

“In 2021, all 50 states will redraw legislative and congressional maps for the next decade, making 2020 the last chance to put fair redistricting processes in place around the country before maps are redrawn,” states a blog post written by Yurij Rudensky and Annie Lo — the authors of the model language.

“The last round of redistricting saw unprecedented gerrymanders, often targeting communities of color. The good news is that Americans across the political spectrum support independent redistricting systems that promote equitable representation. A well-designed commission can do just that.”

A record number of states already have passed redistricting reform, including several that adopted recommendations from the Brennan Center guide.

In 2018, voters in Colorado and Michigan approved ballot proposals to create independent commissions — in each case with strong bipartisan support. And other states that opted for reform that didn’t include establishing fully independent commissions, such as clear map-drawing rules, public transparency provisions, or an alternative form of commission, nonetheless incorporated many components of best practices, according to the post.

“The year 2020 may prove to be the biggest one yet for fair maps,” it states. “Citizen advocates in Arkansas, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Oregon have already started the ballot initiative process to set up independent redistricting commissions. And legislatures in states including Virginia, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania are expected to take up commission-based proposals as soon as January 2020.”

North Carolina is not one of those states. There were half a dozen redistricting reform bills filed in this year’s legislative session, but Republican lawmakers stalled hearings until the last minute and then didn’t advance any of the measures.

North Carolina lawmakers, though, were forced to draw a new state electoral map and chose to draw a new congressional map after a court took them to task for unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering. Democrats and fair voting advocates have been calling for citizen-led redistricting commissions for years.

The Brennan Center’s annotated guide and model bill for designing independent commissions makes it easy for states to safeguard against abuse. They lay out the “nuts and bolts” of crafting strong protections against racial discrimination and partisan manipulation and provide sample language that can be adjusted to fit state-specific needs.

“The clock is ticking, but there’s still time to set up the next redistricting cycle to succeed, to make districts more responsive to the will of voters, and to safeguard against the abuses of the past,” the post states.

See the guidelines and model bill below.

2019 10 ModelBillGuideFINAL (Text)

Courts & the Law, News

Chief Justice convenes Judicial Council, sets focus on staffing, specialty courts and pre-trial practices

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley addressed Thursday the newly convened State Judicial Council. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley reconvened the North Carolina State Judicial Council this week for the first time in five years.

The group, which is chaired by Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson, consists of representatives from every component of the court system, members of the judicial bar, and the public.

Beasley charged members with helping to set funding priorities, advise on matters concerning the operations of the courts, set performance standards for the courts, and monitor the administration of justice and effectiveness of the Judicial Branch in serving the public.

It’s expected the Council will meet quarterly and make recommendations for the judicial branch to act on.

Below are highlights from Beasley’s speech:

I’m asking a lot, but I also asked very good people and I know what you’re capable of, and so I cannot thank you enough for your willingness to really help us think about this courtroom work in the branch, what our goals really ought to be and how we’ve got to focus our efforts and how we ought to best use our resources for the people of the state of North Carolina. So, thank you — I know that you are all very busy. …

I’m truly honored to serve as the Chief Justice. There is a lot going on right now. It’s a really exciting time. I think you may have already heard about e-courts this morning, and you know that that really is a premiere initiative for the branch. I’m super excited that we have wonderful staff who are working on that. I think the more you come to know about it, you will really realize how we will transform the way we do business in the branch and how it will also free up resources and allow for greater access to court records and greater access to the courtroom, to the information we can provide to them as well.

I know you all know that Raise the Age was implemented and became effective Monday of this week. We have a lot going on there. We’re getting excited about the fact that we have an increasing number of school-justice partnerships around the state. We currently have, I think, 14, and about 40 more starting up, and so we’re really excited about that. What we do know is that school-justice partnerships have already shown that they will be effective in decreasing referrals from the schools to the criminal justice system, but what we also know is that that won’t be enough.

We know that we will need more resources to make sure that we can support the legislation the General Assembly has passed, and so we want you to help us think about what that ought to look like. We’ve certainly had input from judges and DAs and clerks and other folks across the branch, but your expertise will be really excited to hear for the year as you think through that process as well.

You all probably know at this point that the State Judicial Council was created in 1996, and it followed the report of a peoples’ commission that recognized that there would be changes in our society that were going require the state courts to grow, and that we needed to think about how to be responsible to the needs of the state or we would risk losing public confidence in the work of the branch.

The obligation was made then, and thankfully, 20 years later, Chief Justice [Mark] Martin realized the wisdom of bringing together a close group of people who really understood and cared about the judicial branch of government, created the commission on the administration of law and justice, and in that report, they found that the majority of North Carolinians believe that our courts are unfair and impartial.

It’s good that they did the work. It’s unfortunate that the priming was consistent with the priming of the peoples’ commission. So we just have to do more to make sure that people will believe in the work of the branch. We have great people working in this work, and certainly, we want people to believe the work is fair and impartial, and that we are doing our best to serve both.

We know that over the past decade, our court staff has been stretched farther and farther. In 2010, according to the National Center for State Courts, the judicial branch within the the U.S. court is 1,000 additional employees, and at the time, director John Smith informed the legislature and the Governor of those needs.

In the following two years, nearly 500 positions were eliminated in our courts that remain unequivocally staffed since that period time. At this time, North Carolina currently spends less per capita on its court system than any other state in the nation, despite having some of the highest court fees and despite being the 9th most populous state in the nation.

So I just know we can do better. We have great people and we need greater resources, and we need to really focus on how best to focus on our resources and ask for what we really need. By statute, this council is charged with advising McKinley [Wooten] and I about financial needs of the branch and matters of certain operations of our courts. …

For now I would ask you to focus your attention on working on several issues that I think wonderfully reflect the work of the commission administration of law and justice. We need to think about adequately staffing our branch of government; we need to think about innovative case management solutions such as drug treatment court, mental health court and family courts; and also have to work on evidence-based pre-trial justice practices that keep our communities safe. …

I hope that you will be willing to think outside the box, to challenge each other, to challenge us, frankly, to think about doing things differently. …

Courts & the Law, News

Trump ends longest-running federal judicial vacancy with confirmation of UNC professor

Richard E. Myers II

After 14 years, the Eastern District of North Carolina finally has a new federal judge.

Richard E. Myers II is a UNC Chapel Hill Law professor and was confirmed Thursday by the Senate 68 to 21. He was nominated by President Donald Trump, who bested two prior presidents in ending the longest running vacancy in the federal judiciary.

Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama unsuccessfully tried to fill the position.

Trump’s initial nominee, Thomas Farr — who has been connected to white supremacy and voter suppression tactics — also was not confirmed. A Raleigh based attorney, Farr frequently represents the state’s Republican party in voting rights cases. He has been lead counsel for the GOP in redistricting cases and in the voter identification law challenge.

Most recently, he served as one of many attorneys representing the legislature in partisan gerrymandering litigation.

Farr was nominated to fill the same vacant seat in 2006 by Bush but never got a vote from the Senate.

Obama had nominated both Jennifer May-Parker, the Chief of the Appellate Division at the United States Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of North Carolina, and Patricia Timmons-Goodson, a former state Supreme Court justice and vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Both are accomplished Black women whose nominations were blocked by the Senate, particularly North Carolina Congressman Richard Burr.

From Bloomberg Law on Myers’ confirmation:

Myers, who is black, is a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law and is a former federal prosecutor. He, like many of Trump’s nominees, is a member of the conservative Federalist Society, and is the faculty adviser for UNC’s chapter of the organization.

The vacancy Myers filled was one of about 50 considered a judicial emergency in the U.S. Emergencies are determined by an algorithm that weighs how long the seat has been open and each judges’ workload.

Myers’ confirmation comes as the Republican-led Senate is in an all-out push to confirm more judges by year’s end. The Senate confirmed eight district judges this week, bringing the total of Trump appointments to district and circuit courts to 170. That includes Supreme Court appointees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Trump previously said he aims to have 183 federal judges appointed by the end of the year.

In addition to Myers, the Senate is also confirmed a judge to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham’s home state of South Carolina.

From the News & Observer:

Myers said at his confirmation hearing that only “an amazing opportunity for new service” prompted him to leave the school.

“He has an outsized positive effect on our law school in so many different ways,” Martin H. Brinkley, dean of the law school, said earlier this year.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina covers 44 counties from Raleigh to the coast. Court is held in six cities: Elizabeth City, Fayetteville, Greenville, New Bern, Raleigh, and Wilmington. Myers said he would make his chambers in Wilmington.

No African American has served on the bench in the district. Burr said Myers would integrate the court. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said during his introduction that Myers would be “the first African American on his court.”

Asked if he considered himself African American, Myers said, “I consider myself human. I consider myself human. Jamaican American. For some folks, it’s a really important thing for them. For me, I would really like to be considered on my own merits every step of the way.”

Courts & the Law, News

Court of Appeals sides with lawmakers in Cooper litigation over block grant funding

Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, and the Republican-led legislature have been battling over power since he took office in 2017.

A three-judge appellate panel sided with lawmakers in litigation over whether federal block grant funds are subject to appropriation by the General Assembly or the Governor only.

Cooper v. Berger dealt with three federal block grants in particular that Gov. Roy Cooper argued he was 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.

The Governor submitted his own budget proposing how the funds should be allocated, among other things, but the General Assembly ultimately disagreed with his suggestions and passed a budget with different allocation amounts to the grants.

The three-judge appellate panel released its unanimous decision in the case Tuesday. It was written by Judge Lucy Inman with Judges John Tyson and Donna Stroud concurring.

“The North Carolina Constitution plainly provides that ‘[n]o money shall be drawn from the State treasury but in consequence of appropriations made by law,” the court document states. “The federal laws governing the Block Grants identify the State as the beneficiary of the funds, and they do not prohibit their appropriation by our General Assembly — the branch that wields exclusive constitutional authority
over the State’s purse.”

Cooper and the legislature have been involved in separation of powers litigation since the Governor took office in January of 2017. The Republican-led legislature worked to eliminate a number of gubernatorial powers when Cooper, a Democrat, won the election.

Read the full Court of Appeals decision here.

Courts & the Law, News

David Lewis, farming business sued again over more unpaid debt

David Lewis

For the second time in a little over a week, Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) and his business have been hit with a lawsuit over unpaid debt.

John Deere Financial and Deere & Company filed the suit Thursday in Harnett County. It states Lewis took out several loans dating back to 2014 for farm equipment but he has not yet paid them off. The loans are past due and in default.

The lawsuit states the plaintiffs sent Lewis a demand letter Oct. 24 for a payment in full of what is owed, but he failed to pay. Lewis and his business owes a little over $1 million, plus interest, according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs are also asking for the defendants to pay attorneys fees for bringing the litigation, and for them to turn over the “collateral” farm equipment that was purchased with the loans.

An agricultural supply company sued Lewis last week, his farming company and its partners for $1.5 million stating that they also tried to collect on a debt without success.

Lewis told WRAL at the time that he was surprised about the lawsuit. He did not return to an email Friday from NC Policy Watch asking about the new lawsuit. Read the full document below.