GOP lawmakers proved again Wednesday that when it comes to Gov. Roy Cooper, they aren’t afraid to flex their political muscle. Democratic lawmakers proved they have had enough.
The Senate Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting met Wednesday for the last time this year to hear from the Governor’s Office and a representative from Elon University School of Law about judicial selection. They were also set to discuss the House’s judicial redistricting plan, according to the public agenda.
After starting almost an hour late, the Committee immediately denied Cooper’s designee, retired Judge Don Stephens, a change to speak because he didn’t work for the Executive branch of government, prompting Democratic senators to walk out in protest.
After hearing from Elon’s Scott Gaylord, GOP senators ended the meeting by introducing their own judicial redistricting maps, which, like the House’s maps, were drawn in secret and not released to the public or Democrats until the last minute.
“After today, I don’t have a great reason to have great optimism,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. (D-Durham). “When a Governor has designated a person to come and articulate the Executive branch’s thoughts and positions on the issues that are before this committee … the person should at least be allowed to speak, to be heard, to have those views and opinions respected.”
Cooper appointed Stephens, who has more than 30 years experience on the bench, to “discuss matters both from the perspective of the Governor and from the trial bench,” according to a letter the Governor’s Office sent lawmakers before the meeting.
Committee members invited the Governor to participate the day before the meeting. Ford Porter, a spokesman for the Governor, released the following statement after the meeting:
“This legislature wants to take over the courts for political purposes and is threatening an independent judiciary. They fear a distinguished jurist like Judge Stephens would shine a light on what they are trying to do. He should have been allowed to speak.”
Stephens said he was not surprised the committee did not let him speak.
“They probably knew that my remarks would be critical and raise questions about the legitimacy of the purported purpose of the hearing,” he wrote in an email. “Their refusal to allow me to speak probably spoke louder than anything I might have said.”
He passed along the comments he would have made had he been allowed to speak.
“Where is any evidence that the quality and integrity of this state’s judiciary is so poor that the constitution of North Carolina must be immediately drastically changed?” he wrote in his remarks. “Who has declared the emergency? On what basis?”
Stephens would have questioned whether the motivation behind lawmakers’ efforts to reform the judiciary had anything to do with some judges have disagreed in their decisions with the legislature.
“The fact that we are having this conversation impugns the integrity of every sitting judge in North Carolina, be they Republican or Democrat, because it suggests that there is something lacking in the quality of their work without any evidence to support that accusation or that unfounded assumption,” he would have said.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger criticized Democrats after the meeting on Twitter and called their protest a political stunt.
“To date, the Senate has held more than 14 hours of hearings and debates, incorporating ideas from across the political spectrum and from many groups impacted by changes to our judicial system,” he wrote. “This is a serious effort to address the constitutional problems with the current plan and the House proposal.”
Sen. Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg), who is a co-chair of the Committee, introduced the new maps at the meeting, noting that they would correct constitutional issues in the House maps. He said in drawing the new maps that they did not consider racial data and did not try to maximize partisan gain.
Districts were redrawn in the following counties: Buncombe, Cumberland, Durham, Guilford, Forsyth, Mecklenburg and Wake.
Rep. Justin Burr (R-Montgomery, Stanly) said after the meeting that he was aware of the new maps and that the Senate built on the maps he drew.
“They’re just continuing to build off needed reforms,” Burr said of the Senate maps. “I think there’s continued improvements, and I’m sure there will be some areas where there will be slight disagreements, but I can’t point any out at this time.”
Burr described the changes as minor.
“There are a couple of differences in it, but it’s nothing that kind of blows the whole plan out of the water,” he said.
Burr added that he’s very optimistic about the General Assembly’s opportunity to pass judicial redistricting.
McKissick said he believes the legislature will also move toward a merit selection plan that “puts the General Assembly in the driver’s seat in some form or another.”
“We have attended the committee meetings on judicial reform in good faith based on Republican leaderships’ statements that they want a thorough and inclusive process that results in meaningful reform,” he said. “What we witnessed in today’s meeting shows us clearly that Republicans are paying lip service to the democratic process and have no intention of truly taking other professional and public perspectives into account.”
Members of the public can weigh in on the Senate committee’s judicial reform considerations here.