Commentary

Columnist blasts Justin Burr’s partisan judicial redistricting plan

In case you missed it yesterday, veteran columnist Doug Clark of the Greensboro News & Record had an excellent essay this week on the ongoing efforts of North Carolina Republican lawmakers (led by Rep. Justin Burr) to remake the state’s judiciary into partisan and less representative branch of government. Here’s Clark in “Next target for GOP gerrymandering is District Court”:

“Partisan gerrymandering soon could find its way into a new area of public life: District Court.

If it happens, it will mark another step by our legislature to exert more control over the other supposedly co-equal branches of state government.

House Bill 717 was introduced by Rep. Justin Burr (R-Stanly) in April but not acted on by the time the legislature adjourned in June. However, it’s likely to come up for consideration in a special session later this year.

It redraws Superior and District Court districts all across the state to create political advantages for Republicans.”

After dissecting what Burr’s plan would mean for Guilford County (basically, it would assure the election of lots more Republican judges), and pointing out the legislature has already taken away Governor Cooper’s power to fill court vacancies and bestowed the power upon itself, Clark concludes this way:

“I prefer countywide elections of District Court judges for a nonpartisan reason. If you have business in District Court, every judge you see is someone you had a chance to vote for or against. That will no longer be true if Burr’s plan is enacted. You’ll only get to vote for half the judges, even though all of them will sit in Guilford County courtrooms. This bill cuts your voting power in half. But its purpose is partisan.

That doesn’t make sense in terms of District Court business — drunken driving, juvenile matters and so on. However, the House passed another bill this year that makes it important for Republicans to win more District Court seats….

Burr, along with several Guilford legislators, met with local judges last week. While their discussion was cordial, I’m told, the judges weren’t sold on these changes — which include redistricting for Superior Court, too.

Burr did not respond to my phone call and email to his office seeking comment. Rep. John Faircloth, a High Point Republican who arranged Friday’s meeting, defended the goal of seating more Republican judges who would better represent the views of Republican voters. The courts lean too heavily in favor of Democrats now, he said.

Faircloth added that the current proposal is ‘a long way from being finished.’

I think we can see where it’s going. The legislature wants to create partisan courts, fix elections to favor GOP candidates and employ politicized judges to serve its purposes. Can someone please rule this scheme out of order?

Lawmakers are, of course, in town this week (and will be in coming weeks) for the supposed purpose of “fixing” their unconstitutionally gerrymandered legislative districts. Ironically, in keeping with the shameless persistence they bring to so many of their nefarious efforts, it looks quite possible that they’ll seize the opportunity presented by these sessions to rig some other elections while they’re here.

Courts & the Law, News

Email: Rep. Burr extends offer to meet with judges about surprise judicial redistricting maps

Rep. Justin Burr

Rep. Justin Burr

Rep. Justin Burr (R-Montgomery, Stanly) has offered to meet with judicial leaders across the state about his redistricting bill, according to email obtained by NC Policy Watch that was sent to Marion Warren, Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC).

Burr surprised the legal community with House Bill 717, a redraw of the superior court, district court and prosecutorial districts, during the last week of the regular 2017 legislative session. The bill was put on hold until lawmakers return in either August or September.

Democrats opposed the measure and questioned whether it included any sort of political or racial gerrymandering given that the drawing of the maps was done in secret. Burr said he did not consult with the AOC or groups like the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys before the proposed maps were drawn.

Now, Burr appears to have had a change of heart about getting input from the legal community.

“Over the next month, he has offered to make himself available to meet with local judicial leaders in the courthouses and counties directly impacted by HB 717,” said Blair Borsuk, Burr’s research assistant, in the email from Wednesday afternoon. “He would like make himself available as a courtesy in order to discuss the bill, the current structure, existing problems, gather input & proposals, and answer questions.”

Burr and Borsuk have already met with judicial delegations from New Hanover/Pender and Pitt counties and have scheduled meetings at the request of delegations in Mecklenburg and Guilford County, the email states.

“Rep. Burr and I will make arrangements to travel and meet at a time most convenient for local judges,” Borsuck wrote.

Burr has not responded to an open records request and follow-up email regarding the judicial redistricting bill. He spoke recently to WRAL and said he didn’t tell judges about the maps because they would have fought him.

With a map in hand, the debate is about tweaking the map, not about blocking change outright, he told WRAL.

“I’ve seen this play before,” said Burr, who has pushed, sometimes successfully, for smaller judicial redraws in the past. “It’s no longer, ‘How do we kill this?'”

Commentary

Justice Center: Time for Burr, Tillis to move beyond repeal discussion, make ACA work

The North Carolina Justice Center issued the following response to this morning’s Senate healthcare vote in which the latest Affordable Care Act repeal proposal was defeated:

Relief for North Carolinians as ACA repeal effort fails
General Assembly should seize opportunity to expand access to coverage for those in the Medicaid coverage gap

Early this morning, the U.S. Senate defeated a last-minute bill designed to repeal the Affordable Care Act and make other harmful cuts to health care. Three Republican Senators—Sen. Susan Collins (ME), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (AK), and Sen. John McCain—courageously broke from the otherwise party-line vote and defeated this dangerous bill. This is a major victory for consumers throughout North Carolina who can breathe a sigh of relief knowing now that their access to affordable, quality coverage is secure for now.

State lawmakers should now seize the opportunity to expand access to coverage for the hundreds of thousands of uninsured North Carolinians living the coverage gap. Not only would this make our state’s workforce healthier and more productive, it would help us fight the opioid crisis, expanding access to substance use disorder treatment and behavioral health services for those in need.

While Senators Burr and Tillis both voted for repeal bills that would have left between 15 and 32 million Americans uninsured, it is now time for them to move beyond the repeal conversation and work across the aisle to stabilize insurance markets, make small fixes to the ACA, and improve our health care system.

Following the vote, President Trump stated that he will “let Obamacare implode.” However, both data and statements from Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina show that the ACA’s exchange markets are stabilizing, so it will take intentional sabotage efforts by the Trump administration to make this prediction a reality. As we’ve seen, the administration has already engaged in efforts to undermine the ACA and destabilize insurance markets. Hopefully with the latest change in legislative activity, the Trump administration will guarantee payments to insurers for cost-sharing reduction subsidies; we already know that the uncertainty of the status quo, in which Trump and Congress are holding those payments hostage, will cause Blue Cross premiums for North Carolinians next year to rise by 14 percentage points. The administration must also enforce the individual mandate and fully invest in outreach, education, and enrollment assistance to ensure that Americans are taking advantage of the benefits of affordable health insurance coverage.

Commentary

Attention Burr and Tillis: U.S. Senate plan to gut Medicaid would be disastrous for NC moms

While US Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr are enjoying their Fourth of July recess, children, working families, veterans, older adults, and people with disabilities are worried that the Senate health care bill — known as the  Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) — will cut their access to health coverage and care.

What is perhaps most troubling about the BCRA are the massive cuts it proposes to Medicaid. The Congressional Budget Office released an addendum to its original report showing that by 2036 federal funding for Medicaid will be 35 percent lower under the plan. There is already lots of in-depth analysis proving how Medicaid matters to our most vulnerable North Carolinians, the state budget, health care workers, and education, but a recent piece that has gained national attention proves that Medicaid matters to mothers.

Specifically, North Carolina’s Medicaid program has been especially important to addressing the longstanding gap between white and black maternal mortality. Even though North Carolina is not an unusual health outcome performer, it is unique in that it has managed to close the maternal death gap between black and white mothers. Community Care of North Carolina works through Medicaid to provide “Pregnancy Medical Homes” so that women who may experience stressors or other risks to a healthy pregnancy and delivery have access to resources and supports to lower those risks.

The success of this Medicaid initiative has actually helped North Carolina improve maternal mortality to the point that is closer to the national average. As Senators Tillis and Burr mull the Senate health care bill, they should also think about efforts state administrators and lawmakers are taking and should be taking to address social determinants of health and reduce health disparities. The state’s latest Medicaid reform waiver application, which has been submitted to the feds for approval, proposes significant improvements in this realm. Unfortunately, If the Senate approves on a bill that includes cuts to Medicaid that will reach $772 billion by 2026, achievements like reducing the maternal death gap will be hard to come by.

Courts & the Law, News

Surprise! Justin Burr announces maps on Twitter that would overhaul judicial, prosecutorial districts

Proposed prosecutorial districts

Rep. Justin Burr (R-Montgomery, Stanly) sent the legal community scrambling Sunday night when he tweeted out new prosecutorial and judicial district maps lawmakers will consider implementing this session.

“Attached are the maps for the PCS to HB 717 which will be heard tomorrow at 4 pm in Judiciary 1. #ncleg #ncpol,” tweeted Burr, who did not return a request for comment Monday.

The tweet included three maps that show new judicial divisions: prosecutorial districts, merged district courts and merged superior courts. The maps are dated June 23, and the bill they will be presented in is House Bill 717.

Burr’s tweet appears to be the first that judges and attorneys knew of the proposed maps, though it’s not the first bill aimed at changing the judiciary he’s introduced this session without input from the governmental branch.

Peg Dorer, director of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, was poring over the prosecutorial map Monday morning to determine how the changes would affect district attorneys.

“I just think this is a mess,” she said in a phone interview.

She said that changes to prosecutorial districts needed to be deliberative and careful.

One of the early concerns she pointed to was combining Robeson and Scotland counties into one prosecutorial district. Currently, Robeson County is its own district — Dorer described it as the most violent county in North Carolina and said it has more pending murder cases than any other area.

“Why put another district [with it]?” she asked.

She also expressed resource concerns with the new prosecutorial map combining Anson, Union and Richmond counties.

Proposed district court districts

As far as the judicial districts, representatives are still trying to understand all the surprise changes.

“Why did we learn about this on Twitter?” asked Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham), a former judge. “People are upset. There’s no communication and they’re caught off-guard.”

She described the changes to the judicial branch as monumental. The consequences, she added, will be a dilution of quality judicial districts.

Morey questioned why the Administrative Office of the Courts wasn’t more communicative with the courts about the maps and said both lawyers and judges gathered for conferences over the last week in which representatives from the agency attended.

AOC spokeswoman Sharon Gladwell did not respond to an email asking if the agency knew about the maps before Burr announced them.

Jeremy Smith, a criminal defense attorney who practices state and federal law, said in looking at the maps for the first time that it was clear what lawmakers were trying to do.

“That’s what gerrymandered districts look like,” he said.

A former prosecutor, Smith said he has practiced on both sides and predicted the new maps, if passed, would cause a lot of upheaval.

Proposed superior court districts

“It seems to me that this changes a lot of who people will be going in front of asking for justice without really any explanation for it,” Smith added.

Advocates on Twitter condemned the maps, referring to them as judicial gerrymandering.

“Looks like some #ncga lawmakers plan to rig judicial maps for control of key cases. Tell them to stop their scheme: demnc.co/stopthescheme,” tweeted Democracy NC.

Some Democratic lawmakers also referred to the maps as an attempt to gain partisan control of the courts.

At a press conference Monday, Gov. Roy Cooper told reporters that the maps were an effort to “threaten” and “rig” the judiciary in their favor.

“What I’ve heard, it’s not good,” he said.

The maps will be discussed publicly at 4 p.m. today at the Judiciary I House Committee meeting in room 415 of the Legislative Office Building. You can listen to the meeting online here. You can see the state’s current maps here.