News

Legal fair on immigration this weekend in Siler City

The Hispanic Liaison will host its second annual legal fair on immigration this weekend in Siler City.

The event, which will be held from noon to 5:30 p.m. at the First United Methodist Church (1101 West Raleigh Street in Siler City), will also offer an opportunity for residents to have a dialogue with candidates for Chatham County Sheriff. Registration begins at noon.

“The recent immigration raids in Siler City and the Triangle are causing widespread fear in our communities,” states a news release from Hispanic Liaison.

The Legal Fair is an opportunity for the Hispanic community and other immigrants to learn about their rights and speak directly with immigration attorneys, as well as the candidates for sheriff. There will be workshops on immigration issues, free consultations with immigration attorneys, free DACA renewals and partial scholarships for Chatham residents and an expo of legal services and agencies.

There will be representatives from the consulates of Mexico and Guatemala there, and all presentations will be in English and Spanish.

“The Legal Fair is for anyone who is concerned about their rights and immigration issues, especially the immigrant community,” said Ilana Dubester, Hispanic Liaison Executive Director. “There are no immigration attorneys in Chatham County and we are pleased that, this year, we will be offering free consultations at the event.”

The local nonprofit was recently involved in helping Siler City residents negotiate fair pay from Mountaire Farms, a chicken producer, after it acquired Johnson’s Mobile Home Park and planned to evict them. You can read more about that here and here.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

A familiar face in DC: rising SCSJ voting rights attorney argues first case at SCOTUS

Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, argued Tuesday for the first time at the U.S. Supreme Court. (photo provided by SCSJ)

Allison Riggs argued at the U.S. Supreme Court this week for the first time, solidifying her rapid rise to the top in the world of voting rights litigation.

Riggs, 36, is the senior voting rights attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice(SCSJ). She already has several federal court victories under her belt, including the successful challenge to North Carolina’s “monster” voter suppression law in the Fourth Circuit of Appeals.

She is usually arguing for fair voting districts in North Carolina, but this week she took on racial gerrymandering in Texas in Abbot v. Perez at the nation’s highest court.

Riggs called the experience amazing, “flat out, no matter what,” but said to stand up at the high court and be able to fight for what’s right and to be able to paint a picture of what it’s like for people of color to vote in Texas made it all the more meaningful.

“It sort of takes the honor to a whole new level,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Riggs spent a ton of time preparing in what is called a moot, or practice round of court. She completed five moots in six days and felt like after, she was in pretty good shape for the real thing.

“There wasn’t a question I got [at the Tuesday hearing] that I hadn’t already heard in my moots,” she said.

SCSJ is a community-based civil rights legal non-profit in Durham that was created a little over a decade ago. It has since become a national leader in the voting rights field, successfully challenging racial gerrymandering efforts in North Carolina at nearly every level of government — congressional, state legislative, county, city and school board.

The most recent cases they were involved in include North Carolina v. Covington, the racial gerrymandering case that led to a special master’s involvement in the redrawing of legislative districts, and Common Cause v. Rucho/League of Women Voters v. Rucho, partisan gerrymandering cases that resulted in the state’s congressional plan being tossed out.

SCSJ currently has three cases pending at the high court.

The Texas case that SCSJ is involved in centers on questions of racial gerrymandering and how much say voters of color have in electing who represents them — 11 political districts are on the line. At the heart of the case is whether Texas lawmakers intentionally diminished the voting power of Hispanic and black voters to keep white incumbents in office, according to the Texas Tribune.

SCOTUSblog has a full rundown of Tuesday’s hearing online, including Rigg’s argument on behalf of the statehouse plan.

She tried to convince the justices that the Texas legislature had enacted its 2013 plan to “perpetuate its ill-gotten and racially discriminatory 2011 gains,” the post states.

Riggs speculated that justices might break on ideological grounds on the racial gerrymandering merits of the case (though Justice Anthony Kennedy didn’t tip his hand, she said) but she thinks they have a good chance of winning the jurisdiction argument involved in the case.

Several people from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice turned out Tuesday to the U.S. Supreme Court to support Allison Rigg’s first argument there. (Photo provided by SCSJ)

Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, communications director at SCSJ, described Riggs as a passionate and brilliant attorney “who is a force to be reckoned with.” He said her past victories didn’t matter much to her Tuesday.

“Riggs takes every case one at a time, much like a quarterback takes one game at a time,” he said, adding that she was prepared to be “laser focused, standing before our nation’s highest court, ready to advocate for voting districts that do not discriminate against voters based on race.”

Several folks from SCSJ were there to show their support, including former founder Anita Earls, who left to run for a seat on the state Supreme Court.

Everyone’s support meant a lot to Riggs, but Earls’ was particularly special.

“Anita is my mentor — she’s my person,” she said. “Her feedback and guidance means the world to me.”

She said Earls helped her along the way by giving her feedback and guidance that she was able to incorporate into a stronger argument at Tuesday’s hearing.

“She’s the only reason I was there yesterday,” Riggs said. “Before we started arguing, I turned around to make eye contact with her and she gave me a huge smile and a nod, like ‘you got this.'”

Riggs said she also thought it meant a lot to Earls to see her at the Supreme Court because it meant that SCSJ’s work would continue even as she went on a different path.

Riggs hopes Tuesday won’t be her only trip to the Supreme Court. She said she is just shy of her 37th birthday and hopes to have a long career ahead of her, in which she can become a good Supreme Court advocate.

She also promised that the fight for fair voting districts wouldn’t end here.

“Regardless of what happens, we’ll brush ourselves off and get up to fight another day,” she said.

Courts & the Law, News

Cooper appoints two superior court judges in Gaston, Vance areas

Judges Carolyn Thompson and David Phillips

Gov. Roy Cooper has announced two new superior court judicial appointments.

Carolyn Thompson was appointed to serve in district 9, which encompasses Vance, Granville, Franklin and Warren counties. She is replacing Judge Robert Hobgood, who is retiring at the end of this month.

She has served as a district court judge in the same district since 2009 and has presided over civil, criminal, domestic, juvenile and mental health hearings. She has also been a mentor and volunteer for teen and truancy courts, according to a news release from Cooper’s office.

David Phillips was appointed to serve in district 27A, Gaston County. He is replacing Judge Robert T. Sumner, who retired earlier this month.

He worked as an attorney in the same district for over 20 years, the release states. He also served on the Gaston County Board of Education for 12 years, ending his tenure in 2014.

“These appointees bring important experience, dedication to the law, and a commitment to justice to their positions,” Cooper said. “I’m grateful for their service to the people of North Carolina.”

Courts & the Law, News

Lack of treatment more of a problem than sentencing options in NC opioid epidemic

Treatment options for North Carolinians with addiction are woefully inadequate.

That was the conclusion Tuesday at a task force meeting on sentencing reforms for opioid convictions. The meeting began with a presentation from Duren Banks, of RTI International, who was tasked with examining policy changes in North Carolina to help curb the heroin epidemic.

According to her research, there has been a 31 percent increase year-over-year in emergency room visits due to opioid use and North Carolina is leading the southeastern states in the increase. About three North Carolinians die from an overdose each day.

In terms of policy change considerations to lesson the impact, Banks wrote that discrimination of opioids is important — 10 ounces of fentanyl is much different than 10 ounces of heroin.

She also wrote about the importance of treatment and diversion to treatment instead of punishment, encouraging medically-assisted treatment prior to release from jail and linking offenders to treatments (and continuing medically-assisted treatment) post jail.

“Addiction is a disease,” her report states. “Punishment for a disease does not work, and might do more harm than good.”

There didn’t appear to be a lot of disagreement from stakeholders at Tuesday’s meeting, but there was a lot of practical concern about the lack of treatment options in the state.

Judge W. Todd Pomeroy, a superior court judge for the 27th judicial district (Cleveland and Lincoln counties), said it’s typically 90 to 120 days for treatment availability and the re-offense rate for someone in the throes of addiction is every few days.

He said it’s nice to talk about sentencing legislation, but if addiction is not addressed at the front end, it’s not going make a difference.

“I had someone last week – the next available bed [for treatment] is all the way at the end of June, so what do I do with that young lady until the end of June?,” he asked. “Am I punitive and leave her in jail for 110 days after she’s already been in there for 90 days and her maximum sentence is five to 15 months? Do I let her out and put her on electronic monitoring? I know where she is but I don’t know what she’s doing. Do I have her drug-screened twice a week by probation? She’s going to test positive. So then what do I do with her?”

Pomeroy said he frequently uses the Black Mountain Substance Abuse Treatment Center for Women and praised the dedicated people there, but said there are only about 60 beds and 15 staff members.

“How many women in this state do you think have an addiction to opioids?” he asked. “More than 60. That’s where the issue is. That’s where the rubber meets the road. I can have all the discretion in the world, but when I don’t have discretion to put someone somewhere immediately, it’s meaningless.”

Julie Honeycutt, director of Hope RX in Henderson County, said she lost her 20-year-old daughter to an opioid overdose and agreed that sentencing means nothing without treatment. She recalled choosing to leave her daughter in jail once for 18 days pending treatment availability.

“[People with addiction are] not able to walk out the door and seek the treatment they need; they’re not able to go out and do what they need,” she said. “They need navigation, they need case management — I know that’s a big drag on our resources, but we need more of that hand-holding to go on to help these people get to the services they need.”

She also said she’d like to see more resources offered to people in the jails because she believes that’s where there can be a big change. She and judges at the meeting also acknowledged that jail is where a lot of individuals with addiction go because there is no other place for them.

“I’d rather them sit there and go from A to B, because you let the walk out the door, they’re going to fall right back in to the gully,” Honeycutt said. “We need to make sure we stop that and we spread that net and stop that from happening.”

Insurance can also be a major barrier for those seeking treatment.

Christen Linke Young, Deputy Secretary for Policy and Operations at the Department of Health and Human Services, said that 90 percent of people entering incarceration are uninsured. Greater access in North Carolina to insurance could go a long way in battling the epidemic, she added.

Banks also pointed out that New Jersey passed legislation last year that mandates insurers cover 180 days of treatment without pre-authorization, which can add to the waiting period.

Mike Cannon, of Wilson, warned the task force that if they don’t do something soon, the epidemic would get worse. He lost his son to a heroin overdose in 2015 and has since spent time talking at schools and churches.

He said most of the kids (junior high and high school aged) he talks to report either using or knowing someone who uses alcohol and marijuana on a regular basis; about 60 to 65 percent report the same about pills and about 25 percent report the same for heroin use.

“Our kids are in trouble — we’re losing kids every day,” Cannon said. “We’re seeing this epidemic explode.”

Nothing was decided at the meeting and lawmakers said they planned to reconvene after the short session, which begins May 16. They plan to address the drug trafficking — the appropriate definition and sentencing guidelines — at the next meeting.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Legislative redistricting impacts: WRAL provides visual explainer

Redistricting in North Carolina is a tangled web that even experts often have a difficult time unraveling.

WRAL’s Tyler Dukes is trying to make things a little clearer for North Carolina voters via a map that shows exactly how their districts have been affected by redistricting.

“Lawsuits have overturned both congressional and state legislative lines on constitutional grounds,” the article states. “But only legislative districts will be different for the 2018 midterms, when every one of the General Assembly’s 170 members will be up for re-election.”

The map highlights the before and after of redistricting in the House and Senate. North Carolinians can enter their exact address to see how their specific districts have changed and who their representatives are. Check it out here.