Courts & the Law, News

Groups protest Gorsuch as confirmation begins

Progressive groups and advocates gathered Monday morning to protest the nomination of Neil Gorsuch for U.S.Supreme Court.

A number of progressive groups and advocates gathered in front of the Federal Building in downtown Raleigh Monday morning to protest Neil Gorsuch as his Supreme Court confirmation hearings began in Washington.

Rob Schofield, director of policy and research at N.C. Policy Watch, led off the protest with a statement about Gorsuch’s fitness for the position – and the process by which he was nominated.

“We’re here today to call on North Carolina’s two U.S. senators – particularly Thom Tillis, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee which is meeting at this very moment – to rethink their support for Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch,” Schofield said. “We also call on Senate Democrats to do whatever they can to stop the Gorsuch nomination.”

Schofield pointed to The Gorsuch Report, prepared by the non-partisan legal advocacy group Alliance for Justice, as a good summary of why Gorsuch is a poor nominee. The report outlines Gorsuch rulings and statements that suggest his confirmation would be bad for – among other issues –  the environment, LGBT rights, worker’s rights, the separation of church and state and the unchecked power of corporations.

“It’s outrageous these hearings are taking place in the first place and that Gorsuch is under consideration,” Schofield said. “If there was any integrity at all in the process, Merrick Garland would be on the Supreme Court today as its ninth justice.”

Schofield called Gorsuch a right wing extremist who would take American backward.

MaryBe McMillan, the secretary-treasurer for the AFL-CIO of North Carolina, agreed.

“We need a Supreme Court justice who cares more about ‘we the people’ than corporations pretending to be people,” McMillan said. “Despite President Trump’s promise to protect the interests of American workers, he has nominated a judge who has consistently sided with corporations over working folks.”

Citing cases involving employee negligence that led to an employees death, workers whose wages were shortchanged and women in gender discrimination suits, McMillan said it was obvious Gorsuch is no friend to working people.

“Working people need a judge on the Supreme Court who will look out for the little g uy,” McMillan said. “A judge who understands there can be no special protections for corporations and the wealthy, a judge who will uphold our constitutional and moral values of liberty, equality and justice for all.”

“Neil Gorusch is not that judge,” McMillian said.

Ames Simmons, director of transgender policy for Equality North Carolina and board member of the Human Rights Campaign, highlighted Gorsuch’s hostility toward LGBT rights. Read more

Courts & the Law, Legislature, News

Wake County leaders push “Raise the Age” legislation

As Policy Watch has noted in recent weeks, support for “raise the age” legislation seems to be growing in North Carolina among both political parties and law enforcement. This week, it’s getting another thumbs up from leaders in Wake County, which operates the state’s largest public school system.

The News & Observer reports today that county officials scheduled a Monday press conference to tout the bipartisan bill, which, in most cases, would require that the state no longer prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

North Carolina is one of just two states nationwide maintaining such a practice, which critics blame for youth leaving school with criminal records.

From The N&O:

Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican, earlier this month filed a bill known as the “Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act,” which would move most crimes committed by 16- or 17-year-olds to juvenile court. Violent felonies and some drug offenses would still be considered in adult court.

Commissioner Jessica Holmes said she supports reform efforts because the current laws are “archaic” and create a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

“Evidence shows that adolescents who go through the juvenile justice system are less likely to keep committing crimes than their peers who are treated like adults in the system,” Holmes said.

“The juvenile justice system is best equipped to rehabilitate young people in a crucial stage of development,” she said. “Raising the Age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18 will lead to safer communities, long-term financial savings and better outcomes for young people and their families.”

The effort, known as “raise the age,” has faltered in the past in part because sheriffs and prosecutors said the juvenile-justice system is inadequately funded to take on more teenagers. The group pushing for change this year claims support from the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association.

Advocates say teen offenses can have impacts stretching far beyond schooling years. They add that relatively minor school-age infractions could seriously blunt a person’s ability to succeed later in life.

The legislature’s draft bill is currently assigned to a House judiciary committee. Policy Watch will track this bill as it progresses.

Courts & the Law

In power struggle with legislature, Cooper prevails in two of three legal challenges

A three-judge panel issued its rulings Friday on two laws passed last December in special session that limited  the powers of Democratic Governor Roy Cooper.

The panel found that the General Assembly does have the authority to establish a confirmation process for the governor’s cabinet picks.

But the judges ruled that it was unconstitutional for state lawmakers to pass legislation combining the State Board of Elections and the State Ethics Commission.

The ruling also blocks the Republican-controlled legislature from trimming exempt positions from 1,500 jobs (under the McCrory administration) to just 425 positions for Cooper.

Noelle Talley, Deputy Communications Director for Gov. Cooper, praised two of the decisions and predicted the third would eventually fall in their favor.

“We’re pleased the trial court ruled two of these three laws unconstitutional, and we believe strongly that the Supreme Court ultimately will agree with us on all three.”

Read the 43-page order here.

Senate President Pro-Tem Phil Berger’s office issued the following reaction to the court order on Twitter:

Courts & the Law, News

In first veto, Cooper says no to partisan judicial elections

Gov. Roy Cooper signed his first veto Thursday of House Bill 100, which would restore partisan judicial elections for Superior and District Court judges.

He wrote a letter explaining why he vetoed the bill:

“North Carolina wants its judges to be fair and impartial, and partisan politics has no place on the judges’ bench. We need less politics in the courtroom, not more.

Judges make tough decisions on child abuse, divorce, property disputes, drunk driving, domestic violence and other issues that should be free from politics. This bill reverses that progress.

We should let people elect judges based on their experience and ability to do the job, not which party they pick.

I am also concerned that judges who have chosen to register as unaffiliated voters so as to avoid partisan politics now have a difficult path to getting on the ballot.

Therefore, I veto the bill.”

Partisan judicial elections are not recognized as a best practice for keeping the courts independent, and North Carolina would join only seven other states across the nation that have them.

HB100 is only one of many bills the legislature has filed this year that seeks to change the structure of the judiciary.

Republicans in the General Assembly currently have a super-majority and can override Cooper’s vetoes.

Courts & the Law, News

Senate lawmakers introduce bill clarifying who can discipline sitting judges after N.C. Supreme Court ruling

Senate lawmakers introduced a bill Tuesday clarifying that the Judicial Standards Commission has the sole power to discipline judges and justices of the court — not the North Carolina State Bar.

Senate Bill 250 states that sitting judges cannot be disciplined by the State Bar for conduct occurring while in office.

“The Council shall have the jurisdiction, authority, and procedure for discipline of any conduct that occurred prior to the judge’s election or appointment to office.”

The bill appears to stem from a recent North Carolina Supreme Court ruling reversing the State Bar’s disciplinary proceedings involving a Dare County superior court judge. The court ruled that only it or the Judicial Standards Commission may impose discipline for sitting judges.

Jerry Tillett was reprimanded by the Judicial Standards Commission in 2013 for violating principles of personal conduct after he launched his own investigation into the Kill Devil Hills Police Department, the town’s district attorney and other officials.

His feud with officials occurred after his son was detained by police in 2010. You can read more about it here.

Two years after Tillett was reprimanded, the State Bar initiated its own disciplinary proceedings, which could have ultimately resulted in the suspension of the judge’s license to practice law (which would have forced him to leave the bench).

Tillett asked the Supreme Court to step in. The Criminal Law Blog, from the UNC School of Government, sums up the high court’s response well with commentary about what the ruling means.

It held that “while a judge remains in office, only this Court or the [Judicial Standards Commission] may impose discipline for his or her conduct as a judge.” The lead opinion notes that the Judicial Standards Commission was created in the early 1970s based on the understanding that the State Bar’s disciplinary procedures did not apply to judges. There was, therefore, a lack of an appropriate formals means to discipline judges short of removal, and the Judicial Standards Commission was “intended to fill that void” and to be the exclusive means of disciplining judges while in office for conduct that occurs during their judicial service.

Chief Justice [Mark] Martin’s concurring opinion supports “the wisdom of the overall scheme that the General Assembly has prescribed.” The Chief Justice argues that precluding the State Bar from disciplining sitting judges “preserves judicial independence” and avoids putting judges at the mercy of the lawyers who appear before them.