Courts & the Law, News

House Republicans pass committee hurdle to make last judicial elections partisan again

District and Superior Court judicial races could soon be partisan again.

House Bill 100 passed the Elections and Ethics Law Committee after debate Tuesday about whether judges should be identified by their political affiliation.

There were efforts in the late 1990’s, early 2000’s to hide judges’ party labels on the ballot to keep judicial races nonpartisan.

“I believe this has caused confusion and allowed judicial candidates to win really for no reason other than their placement on the ballot or a catchy name,” said Rep. Justin Burr (R-Montgomery, Stanly), a sponsor of the bill.

He said labeling judges will give voters the critical information they seek and give them “at least an idea” of each candidate’s political ideology.

Representatives Jason Saine (R-Lincoln), Dana Bumgardner (R-Gaston) and Cody Henson (R-Henderson, Polk, Transylvania) are also sponsors of the bill and spoke out about why labels should be added back into judicial elections.

“This issue is the number one unequivocally asked question [at the polls],” said Bumgardner, adding that he’s worked a lot of elections. “[Voters] don’t know who they’re voting for — they’re just picking a name on the ballot.”

Saine said “voters are hungry” for party labels.

Democrats disagreed. Rep. Grier Martin (D-Wake) said he agrees with the premise of the bill that voters aren’t well informed about judicial candidates but said his solution differs from Republican’s.

He said more relevant information to judges should be available on the ballot, like where they went to law school and how many years and what type of law they’d practiced.

“One thing both parties can agree on is that we don’t want activist judges,” Martin said. “If the only information you’re giving voters is partisan, you’re creating a system that almost guarantees partisan activism [among judges].”

Rep. Darren Jackson (D-Wake) said that adding party labels might help the Republican party in rural areas but would hurt them in bigger areas where well-respected Republican judges currently sit in Democratic-voting counties and would certainly lose, possibly to a less qualified candidate, if labeled on the ballot.

Kim Crouch, Director of Governmental Affairs for the North Carolina Bar Association, spoke out against the bill during the public comment portion of the committee meeting. She said the Bar Association in general opposes the election of judges and encouraged an appointment or selection process to recruit impartial judges.

Rep. Henry Michaux Jr. (D-Durham) agreed that the General Assembly should be looking at ways to free judges from the weight of political affiliation and that elections in general may not be the best way to do that.

Republicans continued to argue that voters should be given party label information, and that just because a judge was elected on ideology didn’t mean they had to rule along politic lines.

GOP lawmakers already added party labels back into Supreme Court judicial elections during a special session in December despite protests from Democrats, attorneys and members of the public. District and Superior Court are the last judicial races without party labels.

Partisan judicial elections are not recognized as a best practice, and North Carolina joins only seven other states that use party labels to identify judges on the ballot.

Environment

Four states, 10 years and 6,648 spills from fracking

A map of the 6,648 fracking-related spills in four states from 2005–2014. (Map: Science for Nature and People Partnership)

Fracking’s first wave also brought a wave of drilling-related accidents — 6,648 in Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota and Pennsylvania from 2005 to 2014. A recent study by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Public Solutions analyzed the spill data; the Science for Nature and People Partnership mapped the incidents, the materials spilled and if it affected the water.

Fracking, acclaimed as a way to reach previously unreachable natural gas, carries significant risks of accidents, as well as methane leaks. Nearly 10 percent of the 6,648 spills affected groundwater. Pollutants included fracking chemicals, crude oil, diesel, saltwater and drilling waste.

But according to Duke University researcher Lauren Patterson, a water policy specialist,  inconsistencies in state reporting requirements make it difficult to pinpoint the number of spills and amount of gallons involved.

For example, North Dakota requires spills of 42 gallons or more to be reported, the study found. That could explain why that state had the greatest number of spills. Meanwhile, the reporting threshold was higher in Colorado and New Mexico: 210 gallons.

Imposing uniformity on reporting and data requirements could help scientists, energy companies and state and federal regulators identify accident hotspots.

The data does show that newly drilled wells are more vulnerable to accidents than older ones. More than three-quarters of the spills occurred at wells that were less than three years old. Half the spills occurred in tanks, pits and flow lines. Corrosion, human error, even lightning  contributed to these equipment failures.

The lack of data is not surprising. Energy companies long fought to keep secret the chemicals used in fracking fluid, citing that information as proprietary; some of that data is still out of public reach. FracFocus is a chemical disclosure registry, but it’s industry-driven and only voluntary. Nonetheless, the chemicals that are listed include antifreeze and naphthalene, the latter of which is thought to cause cancer.

Although fracking has been legalized in North Carolina, no wells have been drilled. The amount of obtainable gas in Chatham and Lee counties is unknown, making exploration financially risky for energy companies.

Courts & the Law, News

UPDATED: Cooper, Stein take steps to withdraw request for U.S. Supreme Court to hear monster voting law

This story has been updated to reflect Republican General Assembly leaders’ response.

Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein have taken steps to withdraw North Carolina’s request for the U.S. Supreme Court to review the monster voting law struck down last summer by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The case is North Carolina v. North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and appellate judges found that the omnibus voting restrictions law sought to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision” to limit access to the ballot box.

Former Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration joined in petitioning the nation’s highest court in December to hear the case. Justices are expected to review the writ of certiorari at its March 3 conference.

There has been speculation over the last several weeks about Cooper and Stein’s ability to change the course of the case and protect voter rights, but their offices had not addressed the issue until today.

This morning, the Governor’s General Counsel and Chief Deputy Attorney General jointly sent a letter discharging outside counsel in the case on behalf of the State. Also today, the Governor’s Office and the NC Department of Justice formally withdrew the State and Governor’s request for the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Fourth Circuit’s decision.

After the Governor’s Office and N.C. Department of Justice withdraw, the State Board of Elections, its individual members, and its Executive Director will remain in the case for the time being.

“We need to make it easier for people to exercise their right to vote, not harder, and I will not continue to waste time and money appealing this unconstitutional law,” Governor Cooper said. “It’s time for North Carolina to stop fighting for this unfair, unconstitutional law and work instead to improve equal access for voters.”

“The right to vote is our most fundamental right,” said AG Stein. “Voting is how people hold their government accountable. I support efforts to guarantee fair and honest elections, but those efforts should not be used as an excuse to make it harder for people to vote.”

Legislative leaders House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger responded by criticizing Cooper and Stein and said the voter suppression law is “hugely popular.” You can read their full press release here.

 “Roy Cooper’s and Josh Stein’s desperate and politically-motivated stunt to derail North Carolina’s voter ID law is not only illegal, it also raises serious questions about whether they’ve allowed their own personal and political prejudices and conflicts of interest to cloud their professional judgment. We expect the courts to reject this unethical stunt just as they did when Cooper tried the same trick in the ‘Choose Life’ license tag case.”

HB2, News

ICYMI: Rep. Meyer: It’s imperative legislators fully repeal HB2 before it’s too late

If you missed it over the weekend, be sure to check out our interview with state Rep. Graig Meyer, who discusses the need to fully repeal HB2 before it’s too late and what legislative leaders might do with this year’s state surplus.

A growing number of local elected officials are also appealing to the General Assembly for repeal.

On Monday, Durham Mayor Bill Bell joined the call to find a compromise on HB2. Under Bell’s proposed compromise, he would have the legislature repeal the controversial law and impose a six-month moratorium on municipalities from passing any future anti-discrimination ordinances, unless of course the U.S. Supreme Court rules on this issue sooner.  Read more about Mayor Bell’s proposal here.

Commentary, Courts & the Law

Expert: NC voter suppression law will be revived if Trump’s Supreme Court nominee is confirmed

In case you missed it the other day, U.S. Supreme Court expert Ian Millhiser posted another damning and sobering assessment of Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. His first finding: if Gorsuch had been on the court last year, North Carolina’s “monster” voter suppression law would be in full force. This is from his latest column, “Which rights are on the chopping block if Trump’s SCOTUS nominee is confirmed?”:

In the long term, [a Justice Gorsuch] could mean massive, sweeping changes to American law. Gorsuch’s previous judicial opinions suggest that he could hobble federal regulation of the environment and the workplace. He may even support more ambitious plans to cut away a string of progressive accomplishments stretching back to the New Deal.

And in the short term, there are plenty of looming issues on the Court’s docket that Gorsuch could have more immediate influence over.

If he is confirmed, Gorsuch’s first few years on the Court is likely to feature a stream of cases involving voting rights, workers rights, LGBT rights, and the right of religious conservatives to defy laws that they object to on religious grounds. In all of these cases, the news is not good for the little guy.

And here’s his take on Gorsuch and North Carolina’s voter suppression law:

Before Scalia’s death, the Roberts Court was not friendly toward voting rights. The Court permitted state-level voter ID laws, a common method of voter suppression. It struck down a major prong of the Voting Rights Act. And it’s placed increasingly high procedural hurdles in front of litigants seeking to protect their right to vote.

In one particularly notable case, a federal appeals court struck down North Carolina’s omnibus voter suppression law. As the appeals court explained, North Carolina lawmakers “requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices,” then used this data to design a voter suppression law that disproportionately targeted African Americans and that minimized its impact on white voters.

And yet, when this case reached the Supreme Court, all four of the Court’s conservatives voted to reinstate the North Carolina law. If Scalia were still alive, the law would have been in effect during the 2016 election.

Gorsuch, if confirmed, will almost certainly provide these four conservatives with the fifth vote they need to uphold laws such as North Carolina’s—even, apparently, when the law was enacted for the very purpose of preventing black people from voting.

In addition to voting rights, Millhiser lists several other issues that seem sure to go the wrong way  if Gorsuch is confirmed, including gerrymandering, union rights, transgender rights, access to birth control, discrimination by religious employers, worker rights and Trump’s Muslim ban. In other words, if you think the battle over the Gorsuch nomination is not the biggest and most important fight of 2017, you’re just plain wrong.