agriculture, Commentary, Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, Education, Legislature

The week’s Top Stories on Policy Watch

Commentary:

1. In the IStation saga, Mark Johnson’s failings get a big stage

If North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson ever fizzled in his lustrous perch in DPI’s corner office, his sharpest critics surmised, he would be failed by his extraordinarily limited bona fides.

After all, when it comes to Johnson’s background – two years in a Charlotte classroom via Teach for America, a stint as a corporate attorney, and a brief tenure as a school board member in Winston-Salem – there is simply not much to parse over.

“I mean, he has taught two years,” a flabbergasted June Atkinson marveled in 2016, with no small amount of condescension, when Johnson ousted her. “He’s never run an organization that has almost 900 people. He has never traveled to the 100 counties. He doesn’t have a background. So, it’s like, how do I teach or how do I help a person who is an infant in public education to become an adult overnight to be able to help public education in this state?”

The image conjured up by Atkinson’s damning assessment – that of an in-over-his-head novice – endures today among Johnson’s detractors.

But after IStation, after the iPads, after the supremely suspect rollout of the superintendent’s propagandizing website, perhaps we were wrong. [Read more…]

Bonus read: Monday numbers: A closer look at the depleted ranks at the Department of Public Instruction

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2. NC Supreme Court justice publicly maligns colleagues, urges critics of America to “just leave” the country


State judicial code makes discipline unlikely for Justice Paul Newby

The only registered Republican on the state Supreme Court likely won’t face any consequences after publicly disparaging his fellow justices, urging a crowd to watch their work over the next 18 months for judicial activism, and telling people who don’t like America to “just leave.”

“Sue till you’re blue. Sue till you’re blue,” said Paul Newby during a speech in Wake County two weekends ago. “What do you think the most dangerous branch of government is? The judicial branch is the correct answer. Imagine seven AOC’s on the state Supreme Court.”

Newby, who has announced he will run for Chief Justice in 2020, was met with clapping and a loud “boo” from the crowd. He was referring to New York Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose initials have become a sort of Republican slur. [Read more…]

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Commentary:

3. Unbecoming of a judge: NC Supreme Court justice’s Trump-like comments go too far

It’s no secret that the United States has a significant and growing problem when it comes to the matter of selecting judges. This problem was on vivid public display in 2016, when the Republican majority of the United States Senate refused to consider a highly qualified presidential nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court for nearly a full year on blatantly partisan grounds.

As troubling as the blockade of Merrick Garland and the subsequent flood of frequently unqualified ideologues advanced by President Donald Trump have been, however, the situation is arguably even more dire at the state level, where the phenomenon of judges running for election continues to give rise to all manner of problematic behavior – both by judicial candidates themselves and the forces supporting and opposing their candidacies.

As Policy Watch journalist Melissa Boughton reported yesterday, there was a new and troubling installment in this ongoing saga last week when North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby let loose with a startlingly partisan attack on his fellow justices during a speech to a Wake County Republican audience.[Read more…]

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4. Hours wasted and a flip-flop on hemp in the Farm Act befuddles House committee

The NC Farm Act: Four months, seven editions, at least a dozen hours of committee hearings and legislative staff time, reams of paper, hundreds of miles of travel by the public, some from as far away as the mountains — and today the bill is back to its original Senate form.

“Why is the ag committee chair [Rep. Jimmy Dixon] taking a different position than earlier in the process?” Rep. Chuck McGrady said in the House Judiciary Committee this morning. “I’m confused.”[Read more…]

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5. Activists to Congress: N.C. residents living ‘on bottled water and fear’ 

What did leading chemical corporations know about the health risks of PFAS, and when did they know it?

Members of Congress sought an answer to that question this week at a hearing on widespread public exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a dangerous class of chemicals that’s ubiquitous in North Carolina and other states. One lawmaker described PFAS as “the DDT of our era.”

California Rep. Harley Rouda, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform Environment Subcommittee, opened the hearing by accusing companies of withholding information from the public.

DuPont and other companies have long known about the negative health effects of PFAS, which are used in everyday products such as microwave popcorn bags and nonstick pans, Rouda said. [Read more…]

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6. The budget, the veto and Medicaid

Democratic Senator who initially supported the budget says it’s time for the GOP to negotiate

The political stand-off over whether to expand Medicaid is stretching the state budget stalemate deep into summer with no end in site. But this week Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford) said she’s worried about how the gridlock could hurt the 1.6 million low-income North Carolinians already using Medicaid and undermine planned changes to the system.

The current Medicaid program in North Carolina is complex and expensive, with the federal government paying $2 to every $1 the state contributes to its $14 billion annual cost. But the way that system works is set to undergo a significant change in November. [Read more…]

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7. Partisan gerrymandering trial to conclude today after Thursday bombshell

A two-week long trial about whether Republican lawmakers violated the constitution when they drew voting maps to maximize their partisan advantage will come to an end today.

The Wake County Superior Court three-judge panel likely won’t make a decision for a least a few weeks after hearing mostly complex testimony from expert witnesses that delved deep into the weeds of North Carolina redistricting.

The trial will continue at 9 a.m. today with another expert witness, this time called to testify on behalf of the intervenors in Common Cause v. Lewis.

John Branch, an attorney for the intervenors — a group of Republican voters — commenced a direct examination of Michael Barber, an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University, late Thursday afternoon. [Read more…]

Bonus reads:
Did Hofeller draw NC maps before redistricting process? Judges throw out expert testimony showing he didn’t

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8. After “A Decade Without a Raise” workers, elected officials call for raising minimum wage

Dayosha Davis works in fast food, lives in public housing in Durham and struggles to provide for her two children.

Child care starts at $250 a week, she said, which is difficult to afford on the $7.25 an hour minimum wage.

“Last year I enrolled my daughter in pre-school,” Davis said. “And I had to take her out of pre-school because I couldn’t continue to pay for her education, even with help from my mother. It was a hard pill to swallow.”

Wednesday marked 10 years since North Carolina last raised the minimum wage — from $6.55 to $7.25 per hour. [Read more…]

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9. Listen to our latest radio interviews and micro-podcasts

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10. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Report: North Carolina is a positive outlier when it comes to Supreme Court representation

North Carolina Supreme Court

The North Carolina Supreme Court is one of only five in the nation where the percentage of justices of color is higher than the state’s population of people of color.

“There’s a national picture that is quite extreme in terms of benches that don’t reflect the communities they serve, and that has serious implications for the public perception of justice,” said Alicia Bannon, managing director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program. “North Carolina, at least on the measures we’re looking at, is much more reflective of the community than most states.”

Bannon co-authored a report released this week called State Supreme Court Diversity. The authors analyzed the demographics of more than 1,600 people who served as justices in the states’ highest courts between 1960 and 2019.

The North Carolina Supreme Court currently has seven justices, 43 percent of whom are considered people of color, according to the report. The general population of the state is comprised of about 37 percent of people of color. People of color includes individuals who are Black, Asian, Latino, Native American, or multiracial.

Bannon praised North Carolina in a phone interview Wednesday for its representation and said it was also notable the high court has three female justices, compared to 17 states that currently only have one sitting female justice.

North Carolina’s demographics are a stark contrast from the report’s overall national findings.

“Across the country, states’ most powerful courts are overwhelmingly white and male, unlike the communities they serve,” said Bannon. “Our judicial system loses credibility with the public when the judges making the rulings don’t reflect the diversity of the people affected by those rulings. Our courts can’t function without the public’s trust.”

Our courts can’t function without the public’s trust. - Alicia Bannon Click To Tweet

The report states that 13 states have never seated a person of color as a state Supreme Court justice and 24 states currently lack a justice of color on the bench. People of color make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population but hold only 15 percent of state Supreme Court seats.

White men now make up less than a third of the U.S. population but more than half (56 percent) of state Supreme Court justices, according to the report. Women, on the other hand, make up roughly half the U.S. population, but hold only 36 percent of state Supreme Court seats.

Bannon pointed Wednesday to two areas that helped North Carolina become a standout state for Supreme Court representation. The first was a history of governors appointing people of color to the bench, which gave them a better chance of winning subsequent elections.

Current state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley — the state’s first Black female Chief Justice — is a good example of that, Bannon added. She was appointed to the judiciary by three different Governors — the District Court bench in Cumberland County by Gov. Jim Hunt, the Supreme Court by Gov. Bev Perdue and now the Chief Justice post by current Gov. Roy Cooper.

She also served on the state Court of Appeals, where she was the first Black woman to be elected to statewide office without having first been appointed by a Governor.

The report also highlights how judicial elections, as compared to appointments, have rarely been the path to the Supreme Court bench for people of color. It documents racial disparities in many aspects of state Supreme Court elections: in comparison to white candidates, candidates of color raise less money, face challengers more often as incumbents and receive less support from special interest groups.

The other factor was North Carolina’s history with public financing for judicial candidates, according to Bannon.

“Generally speaking there’s evidence that access to public financing increases the diversity of a candidate pool,” she added. “To preserve and maintain the diversity that they’re seeing, that public financing would really be a valuable reform to bring back to the state.”

North Carolina had public financing available to judges from 2002 to 2012. It allowed candidates to receive a public campaign grant in exchange for stricter spending and fundraising limits, and it reduced the amount of special-interest cash in state court elections.

The report states that prior research and observations by candidates have suggested that public financing can increase the viability of otherwise qualified candidates who lack access to networks of wealthy donors.

Read the full report below.



2019 07 StateSupremeCourtDiversity (Text)

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Author: 2021 will bring ‘unfettered festival of partisan gerrymandering’ after SCOTUS ruling

David Daley

North Carolina courts could be on the cusp of changing the rules when it comes to partisan redistricting, but other states might not be so inclined following the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.

David Daley, the author of Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count, spoke with Policy Watch on Wednesday about the future of democracy in America. He was not hopeful.

“I think what you’re going to see in 2021 is an absolute unfettered festival of partisan gerrymandering, the likes of which we’ve never seen before because the Supreme Court has essentially given a green light by saying you don’t have to worry,” he said.

The high court ruled at the end of June that partisan gerrymandering challenges were out of the reach of federal courts. It pointed to the states to decide how to control redistricting, which will likely lead to a patchwork of different laws across the country.

Daley has spent significant time researching and writing about gerrymandering. His book, Ratf**ked, examines the rise of the Republican Party through strategic gerrymandering efforts and explores how it’s affected democracy in America.

He said the Supreme Court ruling means that Republican gerrymanders from 2011 will continue to provide red seawalls that likely will continue to exist for another decade. It might change if Democrats can find a way to win back one of the chambers in areas like Ohio, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Florida, but they haven’t been able to do that over the past decade.

In states where one party controls the redistricting process, Daley speculated that voters will witness them “go all out to maximize the maps to their advantage” and they’ll have terabytes of voter data and the most sophisticated mapping software ever used to slice America up even more than they already have.

He said that Republicans have taken redistricting much more seriously than Democrats over the past 40 years. While Democrats spent the past decade trying to undo the red wave, Republicans were thinking about the next redistricting cycle and how the citizenship Census question could help the mapmaking process.

“It’s strategists like Tom Hofeller who were always able to peer around the corner and see what’s better next time, while Democrats seem to focus on catching up to the last fight,” he said. “That’s galaxy brain of redistricting.”

Hofeller died last year, but he was a renowned GOP mapmaker, including in North Carolina. His digital files are at the center of a state court battle after his daughter gave them to the plaintiffs in Common Cause v. Lewis following his death.

The files already unveiled his involvement in the formation of the citizenship question on the 2020 Census — which is still an ongoing legal fight — but court watchers have said those documents could contain a lot of more information about the inner workings of the Republican Party’s redistricting strategies.

Regardless of if the documents will eventually come to light, Daley said he expects redistricting fights to look a lot different in the future after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

He’s optimistic about North Carolina’s opportunity, though, to put limits on partisan gerrymandering. The trial in Common Cause v. Lewis will begin at 10 a.m. Monday. It’s expected the whole nation will be watching, but especially those from North Carolina who have been fighting for fair maps for years.

Tomas Lopez, Executive Director of Democracy NC, said his group will be watching and he’s hopeful the state courts recognize the claims before them.

“All of us who support fair maps are going to keep fighting for them, and that effort includes legislative solutions like Senate Bill 673’s Gold Standard Citizens Redistricting Commission,” he said. “As we wait for our state courts to have their say, this legislative proposal would finally and formally take the power to draw maps away from lawmakers, remove the incentive to rig maps regardless of who’s in power, and elevate citizen input over partisanship. For North Carolinians, these and other state-level redistricting reforms and anti-gerrymandering rulings can’t come quickly enough.”

SB 673 is one of a half a dozen bills pending at the legislature this session — none have been scheduled for a hearing.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Common Cause NC will consider dropping lawsuit after lawmakers pass ‘gold-standard’ redistricting reform

If Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) and other GOP legislative leaders want Common Cause NC to drop its partisan gerrymandering lawsuit, they’re going to have to enact redistricting reform first.

“If Republican legislative leaders had enacted real redistricting reform — like they repeatedly called for and sponsored when Democrats were in power — litigation would never have been necessary,” said Executive Director Bob Phillips. “Instead, they have blocked reform and engaged in blatant partisan gerrymandering of our state’s voting districts.”

The organization sent a news release to media Monday morning responding to Lewis’ formal call last week for them to drop the lawsuit in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to stay out of federal partisan gerrymandering claims.

Lewis incorrectly told reporters at a press conference that the high court’s opinion set a precedent that courts could not weigh in on partisan gerrymandering — it’s up to lawmakers to regulate redistricting. The opinion, however, acknowledges states’ efforts in the battle against partisan gerrymandering and specifically mentions a Florida state Supreme Court opinion.

He called on Common Cause and other plaintiffs in the state lawsuit to drop it and engage in conversation with legislators about reform.

Common Cause NC has been lobbying for redistricting reform for more than a decade — neither party has passed any measures to take on the issue of partisan gerrymandering. There are currently six redistricting reform bills pending at the legislature, none of which have been scheduled for even a hearing this session.

Phillips said in the Monday news release that if Lewis is sincere about pursuing redistricting reform, he can start with the 2009 ‘Horton Independent Redistricting Commission’ bill, which he, along with now House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, sponsored at the time. That bill called for adoption of a state constitutional amendment creating an independent citizens commission to draw North Carolina’s legislative and congressional districts free from partisan politics, with full transparency and robust public input.

“So, we call upon Rep. Lewis and his fellow Republican legislative leaders to enact a true citizens redistricting commission now, and only after passing into law a gold-standard model of reform would we consider his request,” Phillips said.

Lewis responded on Twitter that he had not received any communication or the press release from Common Cause.

“The only commission bill filed in the House would let Democrats pick roughly 2/3 of the commission,” he added. “Not a good basis for a conversation and far from a ‘gold-standard.'”

The Common Cause v. Lewis trial is set to start July 15. A pre-trial hearing is set for 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Defending Democracy, immigration

More calls to close migrant detention centers; UN Human Rights Chief ‘appalled’ by conditions

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement on Monday calling the conditions of detention centers on the southern U.S. border degrading and appalling. Michelle Bachelet stressed that children should never be held in immigration detention or separated from their families. Here’s more from the UN Human Rights’ statement:

“Detaining a child even for short periods under good conditions can have a serious impact on their health and development – consider the damage being done every day by allowing this alarming situation to continue.” The High Commissioner noted that immigration detention is never in the best interests of a child.

“States do have the sovereign prerogative to decide on the conditions of entry and stay of foreign nationals. But clearly, border management measures must comply with the State’s human rights obligations and should not be based on narrow policies aimed only at detecting, detaining and expeditiously deporting irregular migrants,” she added.

“In most of these cases, the migrants and refugees have embarked on perilous journeys with their children in search of protection and dignity and away from violence and hunger. When they finally believe they have arrived in safety, they may find themselves separated from their loved ones and locked in undignified conditions. This should never happen anywhere.”

Last week more than 300 people gathered outside the office of U.S. Senator Thom Tillis in Raleigh to demand he take a stand against the Trump administration’s detention policy.

Click below to listen to our interview with El Pueblo Political Director Moisés Serrano on the need to close these facilities, and what North Carolinians can do to make a difference:

This Friday (July 12th) fifteen vigils are planned across North Carolina at part of worldwide protests of the detention camps at the southern border.

Learn more about Lights for Liberty: A Vigil to End Human Concentration Camps here.

Local events include:

  • In Durham @ 7:00pm at CCB Plaza, 201 N Corcoran St, Durham
  • In Raleigh @ 7:00pm at Bicentennial Plaza, 1 E. Edenton Street, Raleigh
  • In Greensboro @ 6:30pm at Governmental Plaza 110 S Greene St, Greensboro