Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Brennan Center highlights North Carolina fines, fees practices as part of new report

The Brennan Center for Justice released a new report yesterday about the steep costs of criminal justice fines and fees — an issue that North Carolina is no stranger to.

The report found that fines and fees are an inefficient source of government revenue and the resources used to collect them could be better spent on efforts that actually improve public safety. Other findings were that judges rarely hold hearings to establish a defendants’ ability to pay, and so the burden of fines and fees falls largely on the poor; the costs to jail those who can’t pay is especially costly.

“The true costs are likely even higher than the estimates presented here, because many of the costs of imposing, collecting, and enforcing criminal fees and fines could not be ascertained,” the report states. “No one fully tracks these costs, a task complicated by the fact
that they are spread across agencies and levels of government.

“Among the costs that often go unmeasured are those of jailing, time spent by police and sheriffs on warrant enforcement or driver’s license suspensions, and probation and parole resources devoted to fee and fine enforcement. This makes it all but impossible for policymakers and the public to evaluate these systems as sources of revenue.”

The report recommends lawmakers pass legislation to eliminate court-imposed fees, and it states that courts should be funded primarily by taxpayers, all of whom are served by the criminal justice system.

North Carolina is used as an example in the report as a state that relies increasingly on fines and fees to fund basic operations. The state collects 52 separate fees, disbursing them to four state agencies and 611 counties and municipalities.

“It uses fees to fund half of the state’s judicial budget, as well as jails, law enforcement, counties and schools,” the document states. “Using fee and fine revenues to fund the judiciary can create perverse incentives with the potential to distort the fair administration of justice. When criminal courts become responsible for their own financing, they may prioritize the imposition of significant fee and fine amounts and dedicate substantial staff to collecting these sums.”

Other recommendations included instituting a sliding scale for assessing fines based on an individuals’ ability to pay, stopping the practice of jailing people for failure to pay and eliminating driver’s license suspension for nonpayment of criminal fees and fines.

Read the full report below, which is lengthy and very thorough with North Carolina featured throughout.


Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Confused about new legislative districts? This ‘map geek’ can help

There’s been enough redistricting this year to make anyone’s head spin, but a self-described North Carolina “map geek” is on a mission to help voters understand their new districts.

Blake Esselstyn, who founded Districks, a blog and information source about gerrymandering and redistricting, posted an interactive map yesterday of the new state House and Senate districts that will likely be used in the 2020 election.

You can zoom in and see details like how the Wake Forest University campus is divided between two House districts, a situation whose back story may be different than what you might expect.

The Wake Forest example reminds me that the interface has a search window in the upper right that lets you type in an address, a county, or even a landmark like the name of a college or University, then zoom right there.

Otherwise, the map interface should be pretty familiar and self-explanatory, but here are a few features that may not be obvious:

  • You can view the precincts by turning that layer on or off under the “Content” tab on the left-hand side. They’re only visible when you zoom in to viewing roughly one county (or closer in), though.
  • You can change the base map if, for example, you’d like to view aerial imagery. Click on the “Basemap” tab.
  • If, with the precincts turned on, you find the map too cluttered and you just want to focus on the precincts, you might switch to a simpler basemap like “Light Gray Canvas.”

Five of the county groupings in the House map are currently being appealed, but the other districts and the Senate map are set for the next election. The interactive map is useful to voters, but also to potential legislative hopefuls, since candidate filing begins Dec. 2.

Lawmakers also just enacted a new Congressional map, but it is being challenged in Harper v. Lewis partisan gerrymandering litigation. The three-judge panel in that case just suspended Congressional candidate filing and said it would hear all pending motions, including one for summary judgement, at 9 a.m. Dec. 2.

Interact with Esselstyn’s maps and read his full blog post here.

The Districks blog published interactive legislative maps online.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

BREAKING: Court stops Congressional candidate filing pending gerrymandering litigation

A North Carolina court has enjoined Congressional candidate filing — set to begin in just over a week — pending ongoing partisan gerrymandering litigation.

Lawmakers enacted a new Congressional map last week after the court ruled plaintiffs in Harper v. Lewis were likely to prevail on their partisan gerrymandering challenge of the prior districts. A three-judge panel didn’t order the General Assembly to draw new maps, but it did encourage them to start a remedial process if there was a chance of the candidate filing deadlines to remain (Dec. 2 through 20).

The plaintiffs objected to the map lawmakers enacted — primarily because they claim it is still gerrymandered. The remedial redistricting process they underwent also received sharp criticism from Democratic lawmakers and fair map proponents.

Wednesday’s order cites several reasons for stopping candidate filing and states the panel will hear all pending litigation in Harper at 9 a.m. Dec. 2.

“In light of the recent developments in this litigation, including the enactment of S.L. 2019-249, Legislative Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and Plaintiffs’ motion for the Court’s review of S.L. 2019-249, and to allow the Court sufficient opportunity to fully consider the significant issues presented by the parties, the Court will enjoin the filing period for the 2020 congressional primary elections in North Carolina until further order of the Court,” the court order states.

Read the full document below.


Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Republicans ask to recuse Justice Anita Earls from map appeal

Justice Anita Earls

Republican legislative defendants in a partisan gerrymandering case involving legislative election maps has asked for North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls to be recused from reviewing litigation on appeal.

A three-judge panel in Wake County Superior Court already struck down the previous legislative maps because they unfairly advantaged Republicans, and they ordered lawmakers redraw them without using partisan data and in full public view.

The maps they subsequently enacted as part of the Common Cause v. Lewis remedial process were accepted by the court despite the plaintiffs’ objections to five House county groupings. The plaintiffs are now appealing the decision to accept those county groupings and have asked for expedited review from the state Supreme Court.

The legislative defendants and intervenors in the case — Republican voters — responded to that request and told the Supreme Court there was no need for discretionary review and no cause to expedite the case. The state defendants took no position on the merits of the appeal, but it did express a desire for the case to be resolved as soon as possible.

At the same time the legislative defendants objected to the Supreme Court reviewing the case, they also filed a motion to recuse Earls.

“One of the lead plaintiffs here, Common Cause, is a former co-litigant alongside a client of Justice Earls. Another, the North Carolina Democratic Party, is her principal campaign donor,” the motion states. “It, in fact, gave more than 40 times the amount of any other donor to her campaign. And the real party defendant is the Republican-controlled General Assembly, which has been adverse to Justice Earls in every redistricting dispute this decade predating her joining this Court.

“Justice Earls was not shy to criticize the General Assembly’s leadership in public statements. For example, before this case was filed, she stated both in court and in public speeches that the plans challenged in this case are unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. Indeed, given the case history, it is likely that, Lawyer Earls laid the groundwork for this litigation.”

The motion goes on to state that ” the public would have an objective basis to view Justice Earls as a sure vote against the General Assembly and for Plaintiffs,” and that they too believe it because they waited to file their lawsuit until after her election.

The plaintiffs have not yet formally responded to the the motion.

The actual motion for recusal is 40 pages, but the entire document with exhibits is 542 pages. Exhibits include social media posts from Earls, underlying litigation and prior testimony from the Justice.

A major point for the request for Earls to be recused has to do with big donations to her campaign by the North Carolina Democratic Party.

“The appearance of a justice ruling in a case brought by a big-money political party donor demeans the integrity of the process and therefore is a case where the impartiality of Justice Earls may ‘reasonably be questioned,'” the document states.

It should be noted that there were similar efforts to have Republican Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby recused from a redistricting case because the biggest contributor to his most recent re-election campaign at the time was the Republican State Leadership Committee. Newby did not recuse himself.

Read the full motion to recuse Earls below.



Motion to Recuse Earls (Text)

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Most of the Hofeller files are no longer protected by court confidentiality

Tens of thousands of documents from the late, renowned GOP mapmaker Tom Hofeller are no longer considered confidential by a court in Wake County.

Digital files related to Hofeller’s redistricting work in North Carolina, Arizona, Virginia, Missouri, Nassau County (New York), Nueces County (Texas) and Galveston County (Texas) are no longer subject to a protective order, which was issued during the partisan gerrymandering case Common Cause v. Lewis.

An issue about who owned the files — which were turned over to plaintiffs after the mapmaker’s death by his daughter — and whether they should remain forever private was eventually severed from the Common Cause case, and Judge Vincent Rozier presided over that specific litigation. He released an order Monday detailing his decisions about the documents.

Thousands of other files related to Hofeller’s work on numerous court cases, some personal files and some files given to the mapmaker from the Republican National Committee also are not protected by the court any longer.

There are 950 files that will remain confidential, and there are 135,724 files that are still protected pending ownership litigation promulgated by a political consulting firm Hofeller co-founded, Geographic Strategies. Those files are related to a Texas court case, Perez v. Abbott and Hofeller’s work on an Ohio and Florida congressional plan.

It’s not immediately clear if the Hofeller files that are no longer protected by the court will be released to the public. The parties to the Common Cause case that has copies of the documents can decide what they will do with them.

“This is a victory that echoes back to a founding principle of our government — that every person in America is protected equally under the law — and it will help our allies battle racial and partisan gerrymanders in states where that principle is under attack,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause. “Our government is of, by and for the people, not the narrow population that Hofeller wanted to advantage, namely ‘Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.'”

The Hofeller files played an important role in Common Cause’s successful challenge of the North Carolina’s gerrymandered legislative maps in September. Lawmakers drew new maps that were accepted last week by the court, but the plaintiffs are appealing, hoping to have five specific county groupings redrawn by a neutral party.

“The new legislative maps were ordered by the North Carolina court in large part because the Hofeller documents revealed the concerted and deliberate plot to strip tens of thousands of North Carolinians of a political voice,” said Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause North Carolina. “In rejecting the legislative defendants’ efforts to have Hofeller’s files sealed or destroyed, the court allows light to shine into the most hidden corners of politics, applying antiseptic to the scourge of gerrymandering.”

Phillips did not immediately return an email asking if the organization would be releasing the Hofeller files.

Documents from the Hofeller files that were publicly filed in the U.S. Census citizenship question litigation likely influenced the decision earlier this year to remove the question from the 2020 Census. Kathay Feng, Common Cause’s national redistricting director, said in a news release that it’s time to “reveal the truth” and establish standards for fair maps as the 2020 round of redistricting approaches.

“We must move away from the politically devious and racially discriminatory gerrymandering of decades past,” she said. “We are already seeing people in state after state rise up to secure the power to draw election district lines based on people, not political operatives, best interests.”

Read Rozier’s full court order on the Hofeller files below.



18 CVS 14001 11 4 19 Order on Confidential Files (2) (Text)