Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Bipartisan lawmakers: The time for redistricting reform is now

Robert Reives II (D-Chatham, Durham) announced Wednesday he and other lawmakers were sponsoring a redistricting reform bill they expect to gain steam this session. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Litigation and uncertainty about which political party will have the most power in the future may finally propel North Carolina lawmakers to pass redistricting reform.

A bipartisan group of legislators gathered Wednesday morning to announce House Bill 69, which would create an independent redistricting commission to draw election maps with transparency and public input. It would bring an end to partisan gerrymandering in North Carolina.

“At this point in time, you have neighborhoods being separated, homeowner’s associations being separated, students at the same university voting in separate districts – that can’t happen,” said Rep. Robert Reives II (D-Chatham, Durham). “That’s the type of thing that makes people feel government’s broken. We’ve got a chance with this step, with this bill, to move that narrative forward, to change people’s opinions.”

He and Representatives Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson), Jon Hardister (R-Guilford) and Brian Turner (D-Buncombe) are the primary sponsors of the measure, and several other. It’s expected to be one of several bills introduced this session that will address redistricting.

“We’re trying to create a series of different options for the legislature to look it,” McGrady said. “If we don’t want a commission bill, perhaps we could go down another road.”

One of those roads could be a constitutional amendment to make independent redistricting a permanent part of the state’s political landscape.

McGrady said the time for change is now — Republicans and Democrats would rather be part of the redistricting process rather than let one party or the other be in power for the foreseeable future. He added that he would be remiss not to mention the legal context for change: there is one North Carolina partisan redistricting case headed to the U.S. Supreme Court and another that looks like it could eventually get to the state Supreme Court.

“I think legislators don’t like the prospect that we may have the judiciary doing our redistricting for us,” McGrady said.

He would not discuss the details of conversations he’d had with legislative GOP leadership, who have not prioritized this issue since being in the majority. He did say, though, that he’s shared several draft bills with them that get to the same end goal.

“Having carried this bill in the past, in the recent past, it didn’t get much of a say, it didn’t get much of a say, didn’t get much of a conversation with leadership,” he said. “My leaders are telling me [now] they want to see what we’re going to put forward. … Again, I just sense a different feel with leadership.”

HB 69 creates an 11-person commission — four members from the majority political party, four members from the minority party and three members who aren’t affiliated with either of the two main parties. The Office of the State Auditor would randomly select committee members from a list of nominees chosen by lawmakers.

Members of several North Carolina organizations showed their support Wednesday for redistricting reform at a legislative press conference announcing a bill to end gerrymandering. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

No member or a relative of the member can have been appointed or elected to public office or to a state board or commission within five years of serving on the commission. Members are also disqualified if they or a relative worked for a political party or campaign or worked as a lobbyist within five years of service.

Members also cannot be part of the General Assembly or Congress and they can’t have a financial relationship with the Governor. Members also are not eligible to be appointed to a state board or commission, work for a political party or campaign or work as a lobbyist during their time on the commission.

Members of the independent redistricting committee are charged with drawing maps with contiguous lines and compact areas. They would be prohibited from using the political affiliations of voters, previous election results, demographic information and the locations of incumbents’ addresses. They are requested to serve four-year terms.

“We want change,” said Jane Pinsky, director of the NC Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform. “There is no one perfect change, we just know that we need something better than we have now.”

Pinsky said people in North Carolina have been trying to change the redistricting process for 50 years.

Common Cause NC Executive Director Bob Phillips said it’s been eight years since a redistricting reform bill was heard in a legislative committee.

“Let the debate begin,” he said. “Having legislators discuss this, having public input, that’s what democracy is supposed to be about.”

He added that House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger sponsored a similar redistricting reform bill years ago when they were in the minority.

“The leadership today thought this was a good idea 10 years ago,” Phillips said. “Yes, the were not in power, but as been said here, it was a good idea then and it’s a good idea now. And I would ask the leadership, come back to the cause, pun intended.”

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Cheri Beasley to become first Black woman appointed as NC Chief Justice

Justice Cheri Beasley (Photo courtesy of the NC AOC)

Cheri Beasley will be North Carolina’s next Supreme Court Chief Justice. She is the first Black woman to take the helm of the state’s highest court.

Gov. Roy Cooper made the announcement Tuesday afternoon. Beasley, who has served on the high court since 2012, will succeed current Chief Justice Mark Martin. He announced at the end of last month that he would resign Feb. 28 to become dean of Regent University School of Law in Virginia Beach, Va.

“It is absolutely not lost on me that this week this nation will celebrate Valentine’s Day, and I think it must be fitting, because I am certainly feeling love,” Beasley said at a news conference.

She said she was excited to continue working with her colleagues and to work with other people in the judicial system, like court clerks and law enforcement. She wants to make sure the justice system is sound and that it are serving the people of North Carolina in the way that it should.

“I know that we will find successes along the way, especially through our commitment and our pursuit of justice for all people,” she said.

Beasley was initially appointed to the Supreme Court by former Gov. Bev Perdue to replace retiring Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson. She ran for re-election in 2014 and won a full term, which was to expire in 2022. She said she absolutely plans to run for election again next year to keep the Chief Justice post.

She previously served on the state Court of Appeals – where she was the first Black woman to win election to a statewide office in North Carolina – and as a district court judge for the 12th judicial district in Cumberland County.

“Justice Beasley has long been a leader, both in and out of the courtroom,” Cooper said. “She’s mentored students, aspiring attorneys and new judges. … I know Justice Beasley to be fair and deeply committed to viewing all North Carolinians equally through the eyes of the law.”

Her appointment to the Chief Justice position leaves another vacancy on the bench for Cooper to appoint. He has not yet announced whom he will choose, but it could shift the court’s balance to a 6-1 Democratic majority. Republicans had hoped to keep a balance on the court and urged Cooper to appoint another Republican to replace Martin or bestow the Chief Justice title to senior associate justice Paul Newby, who is also a Republican.

State Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse criticized Cooper on Twitter before he even made the announcement that Beasley would be Chief Justice for not choosing Newby. The party as a whole released a statement after that Cooper’s choice to not choose Newby and Justice Robin Hudson, who has also served more time than Beasley, was purely political.

Newby also released a statement on Twitter indicating his disappointment with Cooper.

“Sadly, today, Gov. Cooper decided to place raw partisan politics over a non-partisan judiciary by refusing to honor the time-tested tradition of naming the Senior Associate Justice as Chief Justice,” he stated. “The Governor’s decision further erodes public trust and confidence in a fair judiciary, free from partisan manipulation.”

When asked if he felt any obligation to choose a Republican to fill Beasley’s vacancy, Cooper said he would choose the best person for the job. He said he expects to make that announcement next week.

Former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory appointed Martin, who had the longest tenure on the high court with more than 20 years on the bench.

Republicans have been trying to retain power over the courts for the past two years. In 2016, there was talk of GOP legislators considering making a rare court-packing move to keep partisan control after the election of Democratic Justice Mike Morgan over Republican incumbent Justice Bob Edmunds.

When that fizzled, Republican lawmakers hatched a plan to redistrict state courts in an effort to get more GOP judges on the bench. They had also proposed legislation to transfer judicial appointment power from Cooper to the General Assembly and considered plans to change judicial selection altogether.

In the most recent Supreme Court race, there was more talk of court-packing if Republican incumbent Barbara Jackson was re-elected to change the majority of the high court from Democratic to Republican control. Democratic Justice Anita Earls was ultimately elected to the bench.

Martin’s announcement that he would be resigning was unexpected. A couple Republicans have already announced they would run for a seat on the high court in 2020:  Phil Berger Jr., who currently serves on the state Court of Appeals (he is also the son of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger), and former Senate member Tamara Barringer, who is an attorney.

Newby has confirmed he will run for Chief Justice in 2020.

A little more than a week after Martin announced his resignation, his second in command and appointee, Administrative Office of the Courts Executive Director Marion Warren announced he too would be leaving and following the Chief Justice to Regent.

Warren will be the senior associate dean of the university under Martin. Feb. 28 is both of their last days with the North Carolina judiciary.

Martin appointed McKinley Wooten as interim director of the AOC in Warren’s absence, but Beasley has the power to appoint the permanent director once she takes over as Chief Justice. McKinley has served as a deputy director with the AOC for over a decade.

This is a breaking news story and will be updated as more information becomes available. A fuller version of this story will be made available Wednesday morning on ncpolicywatch.com.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, immigration, News

ICE admits ramping up NC immigration enforcement in response to urban areas not working with them

The historic Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids this week were not a fluke — they were a direct result of refusals in urban North Carolina counties, like Mecklenburg, Wake, Orange and Durham counties, to work with the federal agency.

ICE Atlanta field office Director Sean Gallagher told reporters Friday morning that the more than 200 people arrested this week across the state is “the new normal.” He said specifically that the decisions in Mecklenburg, Wake and Durham counties to end their 287g programs — a voluntary partnership to help ICE with immigration enforcement — led to agents having to actively seek undocumented immigrants there.

“This is politics over public safety at its worst,” he said at the press conference, which was reported on by several media outlets across the state, including the Charlotte Observer.

Durham Sheriff Clarence Birkhead and Wake Sheriff Gerald Baker could not immediately be reached for comment.

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden said ending 287g, which he did on the first day he took office, was not political for him. He’s passionate about fighting for the people who can’t fight for themselves.

“The problem with ICE is they want to make it seem like I don’t want to prosecute crimes,” he said, explaining how his law enforcement background contradicts that (he worked homicide cases for 22 years).

McFadden said he believes ICE’s actions this week have been in response to his agency sending them new policies and procedures in the wake of ending their 287g agreement.

“People are still being arrested for crimes,” he said. “I just choose not to come and work with you.”

ICE agents are still welcome in Mecklenburg’s detention center, and they still have access to the information local law enforcement has access to, but McFadden said he’s not going to have his employees do the federal agencies job for them by housing undocumented immigrants who are otherwise supposed to be released.

He pointed out that he doesn’t have anything to do with releasing someone from a facility — bail is set by judges, magistrates and prosecutors.

Sheriff Garry McFadden

ICE held the press conference in McFadden’s county while he was attending a conference in Washington D.C. He said it was meant to get people into an uproar, but he will continue to stand firm.

“They’re scared for somebody to stand up who knows the law and knows their job,” he said of ICE. “I have something they want, and they’re trying to make me play in their sandbox, and I don’t want to play.”

His office also implemented a policy requesting ICE notify them when they show up at the county courthouse so that deputies could monitor their actions. That was done after some ICE agents came into the courthouse, hid their badges and pulled hoodies over their head and mingled in a hallway until a defendant they were looking for came out of a courtroom. The defendant was wearing a suit and tie and was bombarded by the agents, who didn’t identify themselves until they were asked several times who they were.

McFadden said he has no qualms with helping ICE when they are protecting all communities from violent crimes at all levels without targeting just one demographic. He’s focused on reform, and he will continue to stand for change for future generations regardless of ICE’s apparent retaliation.

“In order to be different, in order to bring justice, in order to bring awareness – and it’s something all great leaders have done – you have to stand firm, you have to take the beatings,” he said.

And there could be more ‘beatings’ to come. Gallagher said ICE will continue their enforcement efforts and won’t turn a blind eye to other undocumented family members or friends in the wrong place at the wrong time during targeted operations. He said they conduct operations at courthouses, during traffic stops and at the homes of people they believed to be undocumented immigrants.

Until the press conference Friday, ICE officials had refused to give any specific information about the raids being reported across the state. The raids, according to Gallagher, were unrelated to the undocumented individuals arrested at a gun manufacturing plant Tuesday in Sanford.

Of at least 200 of the other immigrants ICE arrested this week, nearly one-third taken into custody are what the agency calls “collateral:” immigrants who are living here illegally but lack any kind of criminal conviction or pending charges, according to the Charlotte Observer.

Gallagher said 50 of those 200 taken into custody had prior criminal convictions — though he did not say for what types of crimes — and 40 had pending criminal charges. Another 50, he added, had re-entered the country illegally after a prior deportation. About 60 were individuals who weren’t targeted but who were in the vicinity during raids.

Another urban area he criticized in the press conference was Orange county, although Sheriff Charles Blackwood doesn’t really understand why — they never participated in a 287g program. He said ICE is going to do their job, and the only thing Orange County won’t do is honor their detainers, because they don’t have the authority to enforce federal law.

Detainers are documents that essentially ask local sheriffs and jails to hold on to undocumented immigrants for ICE even if they’re supposed to be released on the local level. The documents aren’t orders and they’re not signed by judges — they are requests from ICE.

Blackwood said ICE is one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the country and have plenty of people to do their work without asking sheriff’s and counties do their jobs for them.

McFadden said there are still a number of ways in which his agency works with ICE, including sharing fingerprints, honoring criminal warrants signed by judicial officials, verifying individuals’ legal status for felonies and impaired driving offenses and notifying the federal agency about criminal ICE warrants.

Gallagher’s insinuation, he said in a release, that dangerous people were walking out of jails because of the end of 287g programs is engaging in cynical fear mongering. In a phone interview, he compared ICE’s press conference to a gnat, and said he would still go about doing his job the way it needed to be done without being bothered by it.

“I’m still going to eat, but every now and then you have to shoo a gnat away,” he said. He added later, “This fight is not for everybody but I’m here to stay.”

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Head of AOC will leave for same law school as Chief Justice Martin

Marion Warren

North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts Executive Director Marion Warren will follow state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin later this month to Regent University School of Law, a Christian school in Virginia Beach, Va.

It was announced today that Warren will become the school’s senior associate dean. It was announced a couple weeks ago that Martin will become dean of the school. Both are resigning their current positions effective Feb. 28.

“Working with the statewide court system to provide programs and services to the nearly ten million people who call North Carolina home has been the greatest honor and highlight of my career,” Warren said in a news release from the AOC. “I will miss this work and the people, but look forward to helping to develop law students into legal professionals.”

Warren has been involved in the North Carolina judiciary for 26 years. His and Martin’s announcements that they would be resigning to work at the same school were unexpected.

The AOC news release credited Warren with the following accomplishments:

  • During his tenure, the judicial branch secured its three largest budgets in state history. The budgets allowed the judicial branch to “restore essential court services that were cut during the recession, provide overdue pay increases to court officials and staff, and invest in technology.”
  • Warren fostered collaboration that resulted in legislation raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction in North Carolina from 16 to 18.
  • He led a comprehensive reorganization of the AOC designed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its support to judicial officials and courthouses throughout the state. He has labored to improve dialogue within the judicial branch and dialogue between the judicial branch to the legislative and executive branches of state government.
  • He provided vision, insight, and direction to bring about transformative change and modernization to the technology that supports North Carolina’s unified court system and the people served by the courts.

Prior to his appointment, Warren served as a district court judge in Bladen, Brunswick and Columbus counties since 2000. Before becoming a judge, he was an assistant district attorney for the 13th Prosecutorial District from 1993 tp 2000 and an attorney in private practice from 1991 to 93.

In the most recent 9th congressional district debacle, where the State Board of Elections is investigating irregularities in mail-in absentee ballots, Mark Harris said Warren introduced him to the man at the center of alleged fraud, Leslie McCrae Dowless. Harris was the apparent Republican winner of the midterm race, but the election has not yet been certified pending an ongoing investigation.

The next AOC Executive Director will be appointed by the next Supreme Court Chief Justice. Gov. Roy Cooper has yet to name who he will appoint as the next Chief Justice, but he could change the high court to a 6-1 Democratic majority with his pick.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

9th congressional district evidentiary hearing set by Board of Elections

Mark Harris

The State Board of Elections will hold an evidentiary hearing about its 9th congressional district investigation into alleged absentee ballot irregularities later this month.

The Board announced in an email Monday afternoon that the hearing would begin at 10 a.m. February 18 at the North Carolina State Bar, 217 E. Edenton St., Raleigh. It is expected to conclude within two days, but the site is reserved from February 18 to 20.

A Notice of Hearing and Amended Order of Proceedings will be posted today on the State Board’s documents portal for the 9th congressional district investigation, according to a news release from the agency.

Because of the ongoing investigation, the State Board has not certified the results in the 9th congressional district race between Democrat Dan McCready and Republican Mark Harris, as well as three local contests in Bladen and Robeson counties.

Harris, who was the apparent winner in the midterm election, petitioned a court recently to certify the race despite the ongoing investigation because the State Board that initiated it was dissolved by a three-judge panel. The former nine-member State Board (four Democrats, four Republicans, one unaffiliated) voted 9-0 on November 27 and 7-2 on November 30 not to certify results as the investigation into absentee voting irregularities continued.

The court also ultimately denied Harris’ request to certify the race.

Seating is expected to be limited at the evidentiary hearing, but it is expected to be live-streamed for the public.