Courts & the Law, News

Josh Stein, lawmakers to court: states have right to choose judicial primary elections or not

Attorney General Josh Stein and the General Assembly found a rare bit of common legal ground today when they filed a joint response contending a federal court does not have jurisdiction to order a state to hold judicial primaries.

Stein, who represents the state the Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, and attorneys representing the General Assembly, were responding to the state Democratic Party’s injunction over the Electoral Freedom Act, which eliminates the 2018 judicial primaries.

The response states that the Constitution gives states the right to choose whether to institute primary elections.

“There is no right under the United States Constitution to a primary election,” the response states. “Rather, the Constitution leaves it to the states to regulate their elections in accordance with federal laws and the Constitution.”

The response also alleges that the Democratic Partly lacks standing to bring the injunction.

It also says the state and the Board should be dismissed because both have constitutional immunity from such litigation.

A hearing in the matter will take place at 9:30 a.m. Jan. 24 at the federal courthouse in Greensboro. You can read the full response below.

Judicial Primary Response by NC Policy Watch on Scribd

Courts & the Law, News

Lawmakers request help from SCOTUS after ‘disruptive’ partisan gerrymandering ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court should step in to halt a lower court’s partisan gerrymandering ruling in North Carolina because of an “eleventh-hour disruption,” according to an emergency document filed Friday.

The U.S. District Court this week struck down the state’s 2016 congressional map as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. It also ordered that lawmakers redraw the map within two weeks and stated that it intends to appoint a special master to draw an alternate in case their plan does not pass muster.

The 200-plus page court order cites lawmakers’ overt partisan intent as the foundation for violations of the Equal Protections Clause, the First Amendment and Article I of the U.S. Constitution.

Lawmakers took issue in the emergency application for stay with both the three-judge panel’s “theories of partisan gerrymandering” and their decision to hire a special master at the same time they ordered the legislature to redraw the map.

“In sum, the three-judge panel has used an entirely novel legal theory to hopelessly disrupt North Carolina’s upcoming congressional elections,” the document states.

The majority opinion was written by Judge James Wynn, a President Barack Obama appointee, and joined by Judge Earl Britt, appointed by Jimmy Carter. Judge William Osteen, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

They contend that the decision is “all the more problematic because it will inevitably interfere with North Carolina’s congressional election cycle.” Candidate filing opens Feb. 12 and runs through the end of the month.

“If the 2018 election must proceed under a map other than the one that governed the 2016 congressional elections, then the Board of Elections needs lead to time assign voters to their new districts, potential candidates need lead time to evaluate the new map and make filing decisions, and voters need lead time to understand where they will be voting and for whom,” the motion states.

Lawmakers suggest that the more “sensible course” is to stay the federal court’s decision until the U.S. Supreme Court makes its decision in a separate partisan gerrymandering case out of Wisconsin, Gill v. Whitford. The Gill decision could have sweeping consequences for redistricting processes across the nation.

They request a ruling from the highest court by Jan. 22. You can read the full motion below.

Motion for Stay by NC Policy Watch on Scribd

Courts & the Law, News

Veteran GOP lawmaker on merit selection: ‘I don’t think honestly the public is gonna accept it’

Sen. Dan Bishop

It’s not yet known how long the General Assembly’s current special session will last, but Sen. Dan Bishop said it’s likely some form of judicial reform will pass before it’s over.

“I do not know exactly what schedule something will advance on, but it is likely that there will be some resolution to the deficiencies in the voting districts this special session, I would say,” he said Thursday.

A joint House and Senate committee met Thursday for the first time to get more information about judicial redistricting — a plan the House prefers — and “merit” selection — a plan the Senate favors.

Much of the three-hour meeting presented the same information as previous, respective House and Senate committee meetings. It was clear the divide between House and Senate members over their preferred plans still existed.

It was also clear that despite putting out a preferred judicial selection plan, the “purple plan,” Senate members had not yet thought out the full details of such a measure.

Sen. Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus, Newton) said nothing had yet been written in bill form, and that there were still a lot of details to be sorted out, including any potential safeguards to prevent a majority party from choosing judicial nominees behind closed doors and any language to ensure diverse candidates.

Veteran Rep. John Blust (R-Guilford) expressed concern about the judicial selection plan and how it would be both perceived and used by either party in control. He said he did not think a constitutional amendment to take away the people’s right to vote for judicial candidates would be approved by the voters.

“The hard part is in the details of who gets to determine the merit and how do you work that out,” he said. “But the practical problem I think I have with it — I think if we came up with a foolproof system, I don’t think honestly the public is gonna accept it.”

Rep. John Blust

Blust also said he would like to see lawmakers reinstate the 2018 judicial primaries. He said he was worried about how many people would run for

“Knowing the calls I get already when there’s two names on the ballot for each position, I can just imagine what the public is gonna do when there’s … 10 names or possibly 15 for district court judge,” he said. “I think that’s gonna be a mess and is not going to reflect well on us if we don’t allow the number of people who file to be paired down in a primary.”

Lawmakers said they eliminated the primaries to allow more time for judicial redistricting. In previous years when there has not been a judicial primary, it’s resulted in more candidates and slim-margin wins.

With that in mind, Blust predicted more people would be likely to file for a judicial seat.

“I don’t know in a rural county, but in an urban county, I think almost every assistant public defender and every assistant [district attorney] dreams of being a judge,” he said, “And I just think you’ll see a boatload of names and the November ballot is going to be very long.”

The North Carolina Democratic Party has filed a federal request to stop the bill eliminating judicial primaries. A hearing in the case will take place at 9:30 a.m. Jan. 24 in Greensboro.

Bishop said there would be at least one more joint committee meeting. He did not know how long the special session would continue on.

Courts & the Law, News

Hundreds rally outside legislature for fair courts, chant ‘we won’t stop’

The energy at a fair courts rally outside the legislature Wednesday was palpable.

Hundreds of people were crowded outside at Bicentennial Plaza carrying signs demanding a judiciary free of politics and chanting things like “we won’t stop.” They engaged with several speakers at the Fair Courts Day of Action, including former state Supreme Court Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson.

“Our courts should be as free as we can make them from partisan politics,” she said.

The crowd shook their heads and several people audibly agreed with her. She spoke about offering her judicial experience in the hopes that people understand why she cares so deeply about the courts.

“At the conclusion of my remarks, I hope that you too will care about what is happening in our courts and to our courts and to our judges,” she said.

Lawmakers reconvened Wednesday for a special session with an unclear agenda. It was speculated that the special session was called to pass some form of judicial reform, whether redistricting or judicial selection.

Timmons-Goodson said such reform should be the result of thorough, careful, bipartisan discussion, not retaliation for judges perceived by legislators as activists.

“An independent judiciary is one of the bedrock principles that is a part of the interlocking framework of principles that are in place for our nation to ensure liberty,” she said. “Judges must be free to enforce the law without fear of reprisal.”

Jae Slaughter, 23, of Asheville, was one of the people listening in the crowd.

“They need some accountability,” she said of lawmakers. “They keep thinking they can do what they want and we’ll get too tired or exhausted to fight. They can’t just shoo us away.”

She said she cares particularly about the court issue because she doesn’t want to see the courts repeat mistakes from the past.

“But [lawmakers are] more concerned with politics than justice and solutions,” Slaughter added.

She said she thinks the rally “is just the beginning” for votehrs getting involved. “People know this matters and that’s the most important part of democracy.”

In an effort to help more people understand the consequences of proposed judicial reform, the Southern Coalition of Social Justice released the same day as the rally an analysis of the Senate’s most recent judicial redistricting maps.

“If enacted, the most recent judicial redistricting proposal would create layers upon layers of unconstitutionality in our judicial system,” said Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney for the SCSJ and author of the white paper. “Huge variation in the number of residents per judges across our state, with a consistent pattern of too many people per judge in our urban areas will likely result in people of color disproportionately having less access to our justice system.”

Melissa Price Kromm, Executive Director of N.C. Voters for Clean Elections, said North Carolinians should take stock of the analysis considering a federal court’s ruling Tuesday against lawmakers’ use of partisan gerrymandering.

“We need to take our time if we’re going to talk judicial redistricting,” she said.

She also warned that North Carolina is a test case, and if GOP lawmakers are successful in their bids to take over the courts, “it will spread like a disease.”

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy

North Carolinians press legislators to end the attacks on judicial independence (photo gallery)

Dozens of concerned citizens and advocates descended on the General Assembly for today’s special session to call on lawmakers to end their attempt to rig the court system for partisan gain.

Here are just a few images from the Fair Courts Day of Action, led by the NC NAACP, NC Voters for Clean Elections, Democracy NC, Common Cause NC, the NC Council of Churches, Equality NC, ACLU of NC, AFL-CIO NC and the NCAE.

Photo by Melissa Boughton.

Photo by Melissa Boughton.

Photo by Melissa Boughton.

Photos by Clayton Henkel