The North Carolina Courts Commission convened Friday to take up House Bill 717, which redraws the state’s judicial districts.
In a 9-5 vote, members of the Commission passed an official recommendation that lawmakers table HB717 until the short session next spring.
The Commission met for almost four hours and in addition to discussing the bill, they heard from a number of superior and district court judges from across the state, as well as the Bar Association. Everyone who spoke either opposed the bill or asked for lawmakers to halt the bill to give more consideration to its consequences.
Two judges from Durham County, a District and Superior court judge, spoke about an amendment that reduced judges in their home county. They said the caseload in Durham requires more resources, not less.
Several judges also spoke about split districts and impacts on diversity. The Bar Association said more information was needed to make informed decisions about HB717.
The Commission is expected to meet again toward the end of October. The full House chamber is expected to take up HB717 on Wednesday.
Here are some highlights from judges who spoke:
Superior Court Judge Gale Adams, from Cumberland County:
“What is the rush? Why can’t the legislators simply take time to more fully and thoroughly study the issue about judicial redistricting? This is a critical issue that affects a large number of people, the citizens of our state, and so what is the rush? Why can’t we have a nonpartisan, impartial commission and study the impact that it has?”
She also spoke about impacts of the bill specifically to Cumberland County, which double-bunks all four Superior Court judges into one of two districts.
“You lose a lot of experience because you would essentially lose two superior court judges [in that district] who are vying for a seat in 2018. … Who suffers are the people of North Carolina.”
Before Adams spoke, there were comments about how the new judicial maps might affect judges’ family lives — more travel could negatively affect work-life balance, which could, in particular, limit female judicial candidates. Rep. Justin Burr (R-Stanly, Montgomery) responded that a judge who couldn’t handle the responsibility of the job shouldn’t run for office and compared legislators’ travel to that of judicial candidates.
Adam said she was a mother of five and talked about her personal experience traveling to cover court in 13 counties.
“I think that the issue becomes this: it’s not so much whether or not you have a choice; it’s a matter of limiting the choice of women who choose to seek a superior court position. And so I think that it is a factor that should be considered.”
Adams, as an African American female (the only one who is double-bunked in the superior court map), also addressed the impact HB717 has on race.
“Diversity is important; it is important to have diversity on the bench. The lines that are drawn at this point limit the amount of diversity. And some may say, ‘eh that’s not important,’ but there is a reason why there are a number of voices in this room. If it was only important to hear from just a few people, well then why have so many people who you’re seeking input from here in this room on the Commission?”
District Court Judge Joe Buckner, from Orange and Chatham counties:
“We think it’s going to have a dramatic and potentially negative impact on our operations and collaboratives. We have four positions that are joint funded between Chatham and Orange counties. Those positions will all be in peril, because Chatham County frankly can’t afford those positions on their own and Orange County stepped up on their own to fund two-thirds of the positions.”
He recommended that the Commission not only look at how HB717 affected judges, but how it would affect court superstructures.
District Court Judge Susan Dotson-Smith, from Buncombe County:
“We are all united … If it ain’t broke, please don’t come and try to fix us.”
“Look first at what works instead of all the things that don’t work.”
Dotson-Smith pointed out that there are other counties across the state that are similar in size and population that were not broken into districts like Buncombe was in HB717.
“There is a model that works- it’s a one-county district model. It’s called Buncombe; start from there.”
Chief District Court Judge Regan Miller, from Mecklenburg County:
“I know that we’re being split for partisan purposes to isolate the voters.”
“We have a diverse bench that we are proud of.”