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.”

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.

Commentary, Defending Democracy

Another new low: Burr, Tillis vote to confirm bigoted Trump appointee to lifetime seat as appellate court judge

In case you missed it yesterday, the far right’s ongoing effort to remake the federal courts with the assistance of their hapless errand boy in the White House continues apace. The latest outrage: the Senate’s 50-47 vote to confirm a bigoted Louisiana lawyer named Kyle Duncan to serve a lifetime appointment on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. As usual, North Carolina senators Burr and Tillis voted in lockstep with their Republican colleagues.

Duncan’s nomination and confirmation have attracted scathing critiques from a long list of civil rights and equality advocates, but for my money, Esquire columnist Charles P. Pierce probably summed up the truth about this new federal judge the best in a column entitled “A Lifetime Gig Should Never Belong to Someone Like This”:

“The nomination of one Stuart Kyle Duncan was confirmed in the Senate by the now-customary 50-47 party-line vote. I am willing to bet that the president* wouldn’t have known this guy if he’d sat on the pastry cart at the State Dinner on Tuesday night. Nonetheless, he has now visited him upon appellants from Texas, and Louisiana, and Mississippi for the next several decades, and the Fifth Circuit already was one of the most conservative courts in the country.

Quite simply, Duncan is bughouse on the subject of gay people and trans people and any other person whose sexuality gives Duncan the jittery Jesus vapors. The Human Rights Campaign has a nifty rundown of what Duncan’s been up to in the years leading to the federal bench. [Here’s an excerpt:]

Duncan’s record of anti-LGBTQ advocacy is alarming. He represented the Gloucester County School Board in their case against Gavin Grimm, the transgender high school student whose restroom access was restricted based on his transgender status. He advocated on behalf of Louisiana in the state’s bid to uphold its same-sex marriage ban and wrote an amicus brief for Louisiana and 14 other states arguing their same-sex marriage bans did not undermine the decision in U.S. v. Windsor, the landmark Supreme Court case that required the federal government to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples. He also argued that a couple married in New York could not have their names added to the birth certificate of a child they adopted in Louisiana because the state did not recognize same-sex marriages at the time and its adoption statute does not allow unmarried couples to adopt.

Duncan also ramrodded the Hobby Lobby case that got a craft-supply empire a religious exemption from the contraception mandate under the Affordable Care Act. He got on the losing side of the Obergefell decision on marriage equality, contributing an amicus [which read, in part:]

With regard to public restrooms and other intimate facilities, there is no evidence to support social measure that promote or encourage gender transition as medically necessary or effective treatment for gender dysphoria.”

The bottom line: There is no other area in which Donald Trump is doing more damage to the nation’s future than in his destructive work to remake the federal courts. Caring and thinking people should make resisting these efforts a top priority for as long as Trump stays in office.