Courts & the Law, News

Three court-related news items you may have missed Monday

It was a busy news day in the legal community Monday, both in North Carolina and in other states. Here are three of the biggest headlines you may have missed:

  • Senate lawmakers took the first step last night toward reducing the Court of Appeals from 15 judges to 12. House Bill 239 is expected to have a third reading in the Senate today. A Senate
    judiciary committee gave the bill a favorable review last week based on incorrect data Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry, Wilkes) presented regarding the court’s workload. The Senate reconvened at 9:30 a.m. but stands in recess until 3:30 p.m.
  • North Carolina is now officially the last state in the nation to prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds in the adult criminal system. New York’s legislature passed a “raise the age” initiative over the weekend, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the bill into law Monday. It looks like North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin lost his bet with former New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman that North Carolina would become the first of the two states to raise the age. Now the lingering question: Will North Carolina remain the only state in the nation to prosecute kids as adults, or will they join the ranks of the other 49 states and use a proper juvenile system? Lawmakers have introduced HB280, and it has incredible bipartisan support, but it is waiting to be heard in a judiciary committee.
  • A federal judge again ruled Texas’ voter ID law was passed to intentionally discriminate. There has been a six-year ongoing legal battle over the 2011 legislation. The Dallas Morning News reports that the 10-page ruling could land Texas back on the list of states that need approval from the U.S. Justice Department before changing its election laws. A federal court also struck down North Carolina’s omnibus voter ID law, and that legal battle continues.
agriculture, Commentary, Courts & the Law, HB2, News

This week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

1. School officials preparing to fire thousands of specialty teachers in order to meet K-3 classroom mandate

Welborn, a Republican member of the Guilford County Board of Education, says her district—the third largest in the state—will need to find an additional $16.6 million and 242 new teaching positions to meet the state’s legislative mandate to cut class sizes for kindergarten through third grade beginning next school year.

“We would have to make such drastic cuts, we literally don’t know where we would come up with the money,” says Welborn. “You just don’t do that unless you have absolutely no choice but to do it.”

All across North Carolina, districts like Guilford County say a statutory loss of flexibility over class size may soon yield massive job losses statewide among arts, music and physical education teachers, as well as teacher assistants. [Read more…]

2. Republican lawmaker presents inaccurate numbers at committee meeting to favor shrinking Court of Appeals

Republican lawmakers want to reduce the Court of Appeals and nothing’s going to stand in their way — not even their own inaccuracies.

House Bill 239 was debated at a Senate judiciary committee meeting Wednesday. Rep. Sarah Stevens, one of the bill sponsors, told committee members that in addition to reducing the court from 15 to 12 judges, it would also decrease the workload and add to the state Supreme Court’s workload.

She said she did not ask Chief Justice Mark Martin for an official stance on the bill, but she said he told her the state’s highest court could take on the bigger workload — almost 1,000 cases per year, according to Stevens.

Democrats were skeptical of her numbers, and Court of Appeals Judge Donna Stroud presented an entirely different set of numbers to Senators at the meeting during the public comments.

An NC Policy Watch public records request also found that Stevens’ numbers were wrong. [Read more…]


3. After partial HB2 repeal NC remains woefully behind on anti-discrimination protections

Now that HB2 has been partially repealed, enough for the NCAA and ACC anyway, a lot of folks in Raleigh are hoping the issue of discrimination in North Carolina goes away for a while, at least for the four years that local governments must now wait before protecting LGBTQ people from being fired or denied services because of their sexual orientation.

Most legislative leaders don’t want to talk about it and when they do they continue to mislead the public about their justification for allowing discrimination to remain in place until at least 2020.

House Speaker Tim Moore this week repeated a talking point he has used often in the last few months, that North Carolina’s anti-discrimination standard that does not include protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity is the same as the law in 30 other states. [Read more…]

4. Trump hypocrisy threatens again with massive proposed cuts to legal aid
The most litigious president in U.S. history says “no” to lawyers for poor people

No one ever accused Donald Trump of being consistent. If ever there was a politician for whom a gravitation toward blatant self-contradiction and 180 degree flip flops was embedded in the very fiber of his being, it would have to be the 45th president. Name an important issue of public policy and it seems a virtual lock that Trump will have staked out a position on all sides of it (and then probably contradicted each of them at one time or another with his own personal behavior).

As a “Fact Checker” article in the Washington Post recently observed: [Read more…]

5. Vote on hog “nuisance” lawsuits happened so fast, some lawmakers’ heads were spinning

In his next career, House Speaker Tim Moore should become a magician. On Thursday afternoon, a procedural sleight of hand wound up fast-tracking a controversial — and possibly unconstitutional — agriculture bill through its second reading.

House Bill 467 would limit the amount of damages plaintiffs could receive in litigation against hog farms. Under the measure, citizens could not sue over “quality of life” issues, such as odor. Payouts would be limited to the decrease in a property’s fair market or fair rental value. The bill would not only clamp down on future lawsuits but also the 26 that are pending against Murphy-Brown, which owns Smithfield Foods. It is being supported by several industry groups, including the NC Pork Council and the NC Farm Bureau.

During the regular House session, the first five bills slated for their second or third reading were being voted on in order. Suddenly, Moore broke with protocol and skipped over the next 11 bills, quickly calling for a vote on HB 467. As a result, several lawmakers were confused about the bill they were voting on. [Read more…]

***Upcoming event: Tuesday morning, April 18: NC Policy Watch presents a special Crucial Conversation breakfast ****

Immigration policy in the era of Trump: Where do things stand in North Carolina? What is the reality “on the ground”? How can caring and thinking people speak out and push back?

The presidency of Barack Obama was no picnic for American immigrants. Despite the incessant and inaccurate attacks of nativist voices (including the current inhabitant of the White House), the Obama administration actually brought about more deportations of unauthorized immigrants than occurred under any previous president – often with only the barest minimum of due process and devastating human carnage resulting.

Tragically, however, things have gone from badly flawed to dreadful under the administration of Donald Trump.

Register here

.

Courts & the Law, News

A bill by any other name: House passes another elections, ethics merge measure

Republican House lawmakers passed a bill Thursday evening that would merge the State Elections Board and State Ethics Commission, despite a court’s ruling a few weeks ago that the move was unconstitutional.

Senate Bill 68, which is actually titled Student Attendance/Page Program Recognition (lawmakers amended it Monday to fast-track approval), passed 68 to 42.

Democrats protested that the bill was moving too fast, would likely lead to deadlocks on important elections and ethics issues and almost certainly would lead to more litigation.

The merge of the two governmental agencies would become one new “bipartisan” board consisting of four Democrats and four Republicans. Gov. Roy Cooper could appoint all members from a list of names provided by the two political parties. As written, unaffiliated voters could not serve on the board.

Cooper has said he will veto the bill if it reaches his desk. He also wrote a post online earlier this week addressing the bill.

A three-panel judge ruled that merging the agencies in Senate Bill 4 was an unconstitutional power grab from the executive branch, but Republicans insist the differences between that bill and SB68 address the judiciary’s concerns.

The difference between the two is that the board would require a 5-member quorum for election issues (SB4 required a 6-member quorum), or a simple majority. Ethics issues would still require a 6-member quorum.

The other difference is that Cooper could appoint all eight members, where in SB4, he could only appoint half the members and lawmaker would appoint the other half.

Rep. Henry Michaux Jr. (D-Durham) said the bill was another measure “being passed in the middle of the night” and an attempt to bypass the court’s ruling.

“It’s an abomination; it’s a travesty what you’re trying to do now,” he said.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), defended the legislation and said “no less than eight” other states have similar mergers.

House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson (D-Wake) said the Republicans were determined to continue power grabbing from Cooper, and warned there would be legal consequences.

“This is just foregoing one litigation for another one that’s sure to follow,” he said.

Courts & the Law, News

Durham judge hopes to take voices of the people to General Assembly as new lawmaker

Marcia Morey

Durham County Chief District Judge Marcia Morey became unemployed as of 5 p.m. Wednesday. It didn’t last long.

The General Assembly officially appointed her today to fill the late Rep. Paul Luebke’s seat in the House and she will be sworn at 1 p.m. tomorrow at the Durham County Courthouse. Her first day at the legislature will be Monday.

The longtime judge spoke via phone to NC Policy Watch on Thursday as she cleaned out her chambers. It was a weird feeling, she said, but “kind of nice.”

She’s excited for the challenge ahead.

“I’ve been a swimmer my whole life and it’s like I’m being plucked out of the pool and thrown into the second half of a rugby match,” she said of the career change. “It will be learning a lot of new people and new protocol procedures, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Morey’s top priority this session will be House Bill 280, the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act, better known as “Raise the Age” legislation. Currently, 16- and 17-year-olds in North Carolina who are charged with a crime are punished through the adult system.

It’s a policy she’s always been a critic of and as a judge, she established a misdemeanor diversion program to help kids move through life without the burden of an adult criminal record.

“I’ve always had a big, passionate interest in any of the bills that affect children,” Morey said. “Raise the Age is a top priority, to do it right, do it well, have it adequately funded; it’s been a long time coming and I’m very optimistic that it will pass.”

She’s also planning on paying close attention to school issues, particularly public school funding, and bills that impact children in the foster care system.

And as only the second person in the General Assembly with experience as a judge, Morey plans to study any bills that have been introduced affecting the North Carolina courts.

The skills she’s honed as a judge that she believes will make her a successful lawmaker include listening, trying to weigh both sides of issues and coming up with the best, fair results that meets voters’ values.

“I know how to read laws, understand them, look out for unintended consequences and will try to bring those forward to help other people make good decisions when deciding on votes,” she said.

Morey said she is humbled and honored to be appointed to the legislature. She’d thought about that type of public service, but said she never even could have predicted being a judge for 18 years, much less a lawmaker.

“I’m going to take it very seriously, do my very best, probably start slowly, listen and learn and hopefully gain some momentum so I can be an effective representative and leader,” she said. “I just love to work for people who don’t have a voice, and so to be able to have that opportunity, I take it seriously. Being a judge, you see everyday the individual struggles of people, and I hope to take that experience, their voices, to the legislature, where other people may not have heard the hardships, how laws impact [people].”

Courts & the Law, News

Republican lawmaker presents inaccurate numbers at committee meeting to favor shrinking Court of Appeals

Court of Appeals Judge Donna Stroud presents statistics at a Senate judiciary meeting Wednesday. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Republican lawmakers want to reduce the Court of Appeals and nothing’s going to stand in their way — not even their own inaccuracies.

House Bill 239 was debated at a Senate judiciary committee meeting Wednesday. Rep. Sarah Stevens, one of the bill sponsors, told committee members that in addition to reducing the court from 15 to 12 judges, it would also decrease the workload and add to the state Supreme Court’s workload.

She said she did not ask Chief Justice Mark Martin for an official stance on the bill, but she said he told her the state’s highest court could take on the bigger workload — almost 1,000 cases per year, according to Stevens.

Democrats were skeptical of her numbers, and Court of Appeals Judge Donna Stroud presented an entirely different set of numbers to Senators at the meeting during the public comments.

An NC Policy Watch public records request also found that Stevens’ numbers were wrong.

HB239 would take so-called “3.1 appeals” (which involve juveniles and termination of parental rights), business appeals and class action appeals from the Court of Appeals and reroute them to the state Supreme Court.

In 2016, the Court of Appeals heard 201 3.1 appeals, 11 business appeals and 9 class action appeals, according to statistics from the court. That totals 221 — not “almost 1,000.”

Those totals were even smaller in years prior to 2016. In 2015, the court heard 176 of those type of cases; 181 in 2014; 161 in 2013; and 178 in 2012.

The Court of Appeals heard 1,339 total appeals in 2016 — the 221 cases that would have been rerouted to the Supreme Court under HB239 makes up only 16.5 percent of the courts appeals workload. And those numbers don’t even include motions, petitions and en banc requests the judges have to take up.

The Court of Appeals works in three-judge panels, so reducing it by three judges reduces the panels from 5 to 4, which increases the workload by 20 percent. If HB239 reroutes only 16.5 percent of the court’s appeals to another court, what happens the the other 3.5 percent of cases?

There aren’t any clear answers, but experts and former judges have predicted that HB239 will likely lead to delays in appeals and dispositions.

Stevens, who is an attorney, also said at the meeting that the Court of Appeals caseload has dropped over

Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry, Wilkes)

the last three years “by about 500 cases per year.” That is also incorrect, according to statistics from the court.

There was a decrease in 2016 from 2015 by 78 appeals and 32 petitions. The rest of the court’s workload increased by 251 motions, 324 appeal disposals (with an increase of 347 written opinions) and 343 petition and motion disposals, according to the court.

You can see the complete workload of the court from 2006 to March of this year here.

Stroud, who is registered to vote as a Republican, said she was concerned about the disparity between the statistics she brought to the meeting (which NC Policy Watch did not get to compare to numbers from the court) and the statistics Stevens presented at the meeting.

She did not take a stance on the bill, noting after the hearing that the judiciary has to remain independent of the legislative work, but asked Senators to consider the disposition time that might be affected by the bill.

She said that in 2000, when the court was expanded, there was an incredible backlog of cases and it took about a year to get a disposition on an appeal. It’s now about 180 days, she added.

“We cut it in half,” Stroud said. “We’ve been recognized as one of the most efficient and productive intermediate appellate courts in the country based on some researchers who have looked at 13 similar intermediate appellate courts. So, we’ve been working very hard to get disposition time down; we know that is the public’s primary concern.”

A voice vote ultimately gave the bill a favorable report to move on. Majority Whip Sen. Jerry Tillman expressed concern at the meeting about the disparity in Stevens’ and Stroud’s numbers, but in the end, he shouted, “aye.”