Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

McCrory Legal Defense Fund pays $25,000 to lawyers defending defamation suit

The McCrory Legal Defense Fund has paid at least $25,000 in attorneys fees thus far to a law firm defending a defamation suit involving voters who were falsely accused of election fraud.

The total was reported as an operating expense to the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement in a recent political committee disclosure report. It was paid on Jan. 10 to Raleigh law firm Blanchard, Miller, Lewis & Isley, according to the report.

Philip Isley represents the McCrory Legal Defense Fund in a class-action lawsuit that was filed after the last gubernatorial election.

Fifty-three election protests claiming voter fraud were filed across the state in the wake of that election — most, if not all, by Republicans defending former Gov. Pat McCrory after he refused to concede the race to current Gov. Roy Cooper. The Republican-controlled State Board of Elections ultimately dismissed all the protests.

It was revealed after some of the protests were challenged that those Republicans were supplied information to file the protests by attorneys with the McCrory Legal Defense Fund, which had hired the Holtzman Vogel law firm in Virginia. Both the Defense Fund and the Vogel law firm are accused of conspiring to undermine the results of the election.

Isley was in court in April to try to have the lawsuit — which was filed by four retiree voters, three from Guilford County and one from Brunswick — dismissed.

The Defense Fund was established by the Pat McCrory Committee while the former Governor was still fighting his loss. North Carolinians were solicited for donations to help make sure all votes were counted in the election. The website is still up and appears to still take donations.

The Defense Fund also reported paying $2,400 in software fees to Aristotle, Inc., a company located in Washington D.C. that provides political technology and solutions to grassroots organizations, public affairs councils (PACs) and political campaigns in the United States and abroad.

Other expenses reported include more than $11,000 paid in taxes to the IRS and the North Carolina Department of Revenue. The group has $69,552.28 “cash on hand” for this reporting period and $83,732.44 total this election.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Guest columnist urges NC to stand with Forsyth judges in opposing judicial reform

A guest columnist in the Winston-Salem Journal last week encouraged North Carolina voters and their elected officials to stand together in opposing legislative attacks.

Linda Sutton was inspired by seeing five Forsyth County judges speak earlier this month at a “Fair Courts, Fair Votes” town hall in Winston-Salem.

The judges’ message was clear: our justice system exists so that everyone can rely on fair treatment from independent courts, but many in the legal community feel like that system is under attack.

[District Court] Judge [Gordon] Miller, a Republican and self-professed NRA member, told the packed room, “I’ve been practicing law for over 40 years … I don’t sit on the bench as a member of the NRA or a Republican, I sit there as a District Court judge … I disagree with the bills that have been proposed and I think they’re horrible ideas.”

Over the last few years, politicians in Raleigh have pushed an array of proposals to strip our courts of their independence by radically altering the way North Carolina chooses judges. They’ve made our judicial elections partisan, eliminated the 2018 judicial primary and floated plans to gerrymander the voting districts for our courts or eliminate judicial elections altogether.

Sutton said she was proud of the judges for standing together and speaking out, and said it was time for elected officials to follow their lead by passing a resolution to oppose legislative judicial attacks.

Several cities and counties across the state, including in conservative, rural areas, have passed resolutions opposing judicial reform. You can read more about that here and here.

Sutton wrote that passing such a resolution could “send a strong message to politicians in Raleigh that, like one Beaufort County commissioner put it, ‘you don’t know our county the way we do.'” She called on commissioners to act now. Read the full column here.

I’m calling on Forsyth County commissioners to act now. And I’m asking my fellow Forsyth County residents to ask them to do the same (we’ve made it easy to contact our commissioners about this issue at demnc.co/fairforsyth).

With only a few weeks until the N.C. legislature reconvenes to take up these changes, it’s time for Forsyth County to do what it can to fight back. This week our judges stood up for us. It’s time we did the same for them and the people that they serve.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Partisan gerrymandering plaintiffs ask U.S. Supreme Court to affirm lower ruling

The plaintiff’s in North Carolina’s partisan gerrymandering case have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm the lower court’s decision striking down a 2016 congressional map.

The high court denied an expedited briefing in the case but could still affirm the court’s decision and order fair maps to be drawn, according to a news release from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ).

The Campaign Legal Center (CLC), SCSJ and University of Chicago Professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos represent the plaintiffs in League of Women Voters of North Carolina v. Rucho. They jointly filed the brief on behalf of their clients, the League of Women Voters of North Carolina and 12 individual North Carolina voters.

That case and Common Cause v. Rucho led to the partisan gerrymandering opinion from the lower court.

“The district court unanimously and correctly found that North Carolina lawmakers manipulated the state’s congressional voting maps to lock in their own political party’s power, with little regard for the will of voters,” said Paul Smith, vice president at CLC. “North Carolina has one of the most severely gerrymandered maps in modern American history. North Carolina voters have endured three election cycles with a skewed congressional map. The Supreme Court must affirm the lower court’s ruling, because even a single election under an unconstitutional map is one too many.”

Smith argued the partisan gerrymandering case out of Wisconsin, Gill v. Whitford, before the Supreme Court on October 3. There has not yet been an opinion handed down in that case, which is expected to set precedent.

Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney for SCSJ said they are hopeful the high court recognizes the “glaring unconstitutionality” of North Carolina’s plan.

“The congressional maps drawn in North Carolina would be unconstitutional under virtually any meaningful legal standard the court adopts,” she said.

Evidence presented at the trial in 2017 showed that Republican legislative leaders used political data in drawing the 2016 congressional map to gain specific partisan advantage. You can read more about that here.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

NCGA wants power to appoint judicial vacancies as alternative merit selection

Rep. Justin Burr (R-Montgomery, Stanly) led a judicial reform and redistricting meeting Friday. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Republican Rep. John Blust criticized his colleagues Friday for becoming entangled in a subject they don’t know much about — the judiciary.

“Why do we want to take on one more thing that may not be an area we have expertise when we claim we have limited time and we can’t get to so many important subjects because of that limited time?” he asked.

He was responding to Rep. Justin Burr’s (R-Montgomery, Stanly) resurrection of two bills that passed the House last session that would take judicial appointment power from the Governor and reallocate it to the General Assembly.

House Bills 240 and 241 were discussed in the joint committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting, along with three judicial map options that were introduced earlier this year.

HB240 involves judicial appointments to district court vacancies and HB241 involves judicial appointments to special superior court vacancies. Gov. Roy Cooper currently has the power to make those appointments with some input from the Bar, but Burr says the General Assembly would provide a more open and transparent process with opportunity for public input.

“Currently, many of these vacancies are filled in secret behind the iron fence of the Governor’s mansion with no involvement from the public whatsoever, and I have had a problem with that for years,” Burr said.

It was an exaggeration that several lawmakers, who also happen to be attorneys, pointed out, noting that the Bar is usually actively involved in the nomination process.

Several other lawmakers, including Blust, noted that timing would be an issue, particularly for district court, if lawmakers weren’t in session to make appointments right away when vacancies occur.

Each bill, however, allows for the Speaker of the House and the Senate President Pro Tem to submit a nomination to the Governor if lawmakers are not in session (without public input).

Rep. Robert Reives II (D-Chatham, Lee) took issue with that.

“It’s kind of interesting that we’re talking about transparency of the process, and if I’m reading this correctly, we’re kind of back to the same thing in the interim,” he said. “You get a couple people in the same room making the decisions and that’s it, so I don’ really see how that is a different process.”

He said that his constituents already don’t believe that lawmakers work with a lot of transparency, and that given their perception, he doesn’t see how HB240 and HB241 would help.

“I have a huge concern about the General Assembly making any judicial appointments in this manner because again, I feel like it’s infringing even further on the judicial branch of government, which is a completely separate branch of government,” he added.

Blust also took issue with with the overreach of power the bill seems to give lawmakers.

“One thing about the General Assembly, either party, a few people hold most of the cards, and they can make the decision — even if you think they’re not making the decision, they can bring so much power to sway,” he said.

Sen. Warren Daniel (R-Burke, Cleveland), a co-chair on the committee, described HB240 and HB241 as “forms of merit selection” and said they did not receive a mandate from leadership to discuss those two measures.

Neither he nor Sen. Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg) what momentum was currently behind those bills or a measure for judicial redistricting. Bishop said the reason lawmakers were looking at appointing vacancies to district court and special superior court judgeships is because they didn’t require constitutional amendments.

Bishop said he believes there is a high priority to fixing Mecklenburg County, where there is reportedly population discrepancies in the judicial districts, but he also didn’t show support for any one full map of the nine that have been introduced.

“I think the bottom line is if somebody can show me a plan to just do Mecklenburg, and we otherwise can’t get momentum, would I be supportive of that? Perhaps,” he said. “But I’m not comfortable with that right now.”

The judicial election ballots have to be printed by Sept. 7. In the meantime, judges are uncertain about how they will be affected or if they should move to avoid double-bunking.

When asked if they would be comfortable with the current process if the tables were turned and lawmakers were dealing with legislative maps, Bishop and Daniel wouldn’t answer the question directly — they just acknowledged taking into consideration a transition period.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Meet the judges behind today’s story about judicial redistricting

At least six judges spoke to NC Policy Watch over the past two weeks to discuss how judicial redistricting plans could affect their future and impact the communities they serve.

Every single judge made a point to note that the plans were not about them specifically but about the bigger picture of an independent judiciary with access to fair and equal justice for all.

Their concerns are highlighted here, but it’s worth noting that they each bring different experiences and perspectives to the bench that would be a loss to the state should they lose their seat due to judicial redistricting.

Here are snippets of their stories, presented in order of how they were quoted in the PW story:

Robin Robinson:

Robinson has been a district court judge in New Hanover and Pender counties since 2011. She is mainly a family court judge, but also works in the DWI and drug treatment courts and presides over juvenile and other district court cases, including civil, criminal, domestic violence, child support and mental commitments.

She describes her interest in serving on the bench as “more evolutionary than revolutionary” over a long legal career.

Robinson recently received a YWCA Lifetime Achievement Award for her work. The women’s organization’s mission is to eliminate racism, empower women, stand up for social justice, help families and strengthen communities.

Her nomination letter describes her service to her family, community, friends and colleagues.

“From her experience with community service and pro bono work, to her legal career, pioneering the local bar’s alternative dispute resolution process, and qualification as a family law specialist, to her judgeship Judge Robinson has shown herself to be an outstanding member of our community,” it states. “She has set high goals for herself and has achieved them with quiet dignity, intelligence, humility and grace.”

In her PW interview, Robinson said judges try not to think about the impact of judicial redistricting so that they can keep serving the public to the best of their ability.

“Day to day, we want to be free to just do our jobs, which we take very seriously,” she said.

Allen Baddour:

Baddour was first appointed as a superior court judge in 2006. He went into private practice after law school and did “a little bit of everything” until becoming a prosecutor. He hadn’t initially set out to be a judge but his legal experience led him there and he hasn’t looked back.

“I like having a hand in how our system operates,” he said in a recent interview with PW. “I like to think that I don’t care who wins — it’s not about that, but it’s about doing my best to give everyone a shot at a just trial and an efficient trial. I think that’s really important.”

Baddour has held court in more than 25 counties across the state and is certified to preside over complex litigation. He helps educate fellow judges and lawyers, helped lead the design and construction of the new Chatham County Justice Center and speaks frequently with students about law and the courts.

He said he hasn’t decided what he would do in 2022 if still double-bunked with colleague Carl Fox, another superior court judge serving Chatham and Orange counties.

Carl Fox:

Fox has been a superior court judge since 2005. He was previously a district attorney and assistant district attorney. He described his move to the bench as a “natural transition” from his prior experience in superior court.

Fox said he enjoys traveling across the state to hold court and that he has been to Charlotte six times, Goldsboro at least three times and Greensboro anywhere from 12 to 20 times.

“I’ve gotten to see a lot of different places, a lot of different courtrooms and met a tremendous number of really nice people; lawyers, court personnel, clerks, bailiffs, judicial staff,” he said.

Fox also said he’s gotten to try a lot of restaurants across the state and joked that he could write a restaurant and hotel guide for all the places he’s stayed and eaten.

He was diagnosed in 2015 with a deadly blood cancer and had to set his judicial duties aside, but returned to the bench about a year later after receiving a blood marrow transplant using umbilical cord stem cells that saved his life.

Fox, like Baddour, said he has not yet decided what he will do in terms of 2022 if he is double-bunked.

“I hope we don’t have to attempt to address that at that point, but I realize that’s a real and distinct possibility,” he said.

Amber Davis:

This year marks Davis’ 18th year on the bench. She previously worked as an assistant district attorney and also practiced law in Guam for three years while her husband worked as a JAG officer for the military.

Davis said she enjoys working in the district court and moving around to meet different people. She described the judicial redistricting plan as an “emotional roller-coaster” for her and her family.

“To my children, my whole identity, they see me as mom and judge, and for that change [to take place] would shock them,” she said. “The mention of it is a shock to them.”

She is considered a senior judge in the first judicial district and said she grew up on the bench, noting that there is a lot to be said about her experience.

“We’ve taken our gut check, we’ve lost, we’ve been appealed, we’ve been reversed, we’ve learned, we’ve made mistakes and we’ve lost lots of sleep at night,” she said. “It’s one of those things where the more I do, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”

Carrie Vickery:

Vickery is in her first term on the bench as a district court judge. She was previously in private practice.

“This is the thing I had always wanted to do,” she said. “As an attorney, you touch so many lives and as a judge, you can touch so many more lives.”

She described district court as the “cornerstone of the community.”

Vickery has enjoyed several leadership roles within the legal community. She said still pinches herself some days because she feels so lucky to have her current job.

She said it’s difficult to know what is happening with judicial redistricting because there have been so many changes, but that she feels like the bench in Forsyth County is evenly divided and representative of the makeup of the area.

She added that party labels have nothing to do with her job as a judge.

“The things that I hear have nothing to do with party politics,” she said. “It would be inappropriate for me to try to insert politics in any way into the judiciary or the cases I hear.”

Eula Reid:

Reid has been a district court judge in the first judicial district for a little over 10 years. She was previously an assistant district attorney.

She made a bid to get on the bench after the retiring judge asked her if she would be interested in the seat.

“I enjoy helping people and I feel sometimes when you’re on the bench, people look at it differently, but it’s really nice to enter a judgement for or against someone and then you to see them out in public and they thank you for doing whatever you did, be it in their favor or not,” she said.

Reid is the only black female judge on the bench in her district and works to be a role model to young people. She said she has “maybe put her head in the sand” in regards to what she would do if her position was eliminated through judicial redistricting.

“I truly enjoy being a judge,” she said.

She described the job now as more political than it was in the past but said she remains independent.

“I’ve always thought that when people appear before me, they don’t really care if I’m a Republican or Democrat,” she said. “All they want to know is that I’m going to apply the law and that I’m going to apply it impartially.”