Publisher's note: The author of this post is Dan Way, who is an associate editor for the Carolina Journal, John Hood Publisher.
The Senate Select Committee on Elections approved a drastically slimmer version of a House judicial redistricting bill. Constitutional issues about the bill struck a raw nerve among Democrats.
House Bill 717
would revise all judicial districts in the state, and spend $9 million on judicial staff and resources. Bill sponsors said
current judicial districts were woefully outdated - they hadn't been updated since Dwight Eisenhower was president. Huge population shifts since then have made districts unbalanced. Some judges have districts with far more people than others.
Democrats said the bill raised possible racial impacts
and separation-of-power concerns - along with a stated interest by some GOP leaders in appointing
rather than electing judges.
The Select Committee on Elections Monday, June 4, passed a substitute version of the bill. It eliminated the statewide district revisions and focused on restructuring a few judicial districts. It reduced the number of judicial divisions - groupings of multiple counties - from eight to five.
"I think there's a lot of challenges as to whether there's enough agreement in the General Assembly right now for a statewide bill,"
Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, committee chairman, said after the meeting. "The real challenges in the overall statewide [bill] are in the urban areas, addressing some of those [constitutional] issues that are there."
Some election reform experts have warned
that failing to address resident-to-judge differences among judicial districts could violate constitutional equal protection rights. Voters with narrow resident-to-judge ratios have greater voting strength.
The revised legislation is localized, and focused mainly on remapping some districts to comply with judicial workloads.
It divides the Burke, Caldwell, and Catawba counties' prosecutorial district into two subdistricts, with Catawba standing alone, and creates residency requirements for district court judges.
Hoke and Moore counties would be grouped for Superior and District courts. Anson, Richmond, and Scotland counties would be lumped together.
Anson, Richmond, and Scotland counties would become a three-county prosecutorial district. Hoke and Moore counties would become a two-county prosecutorial district.
The bill directs the state Supreme Court chief justice to strive to designate Superior Court judges for work in the district where they were elected for no less than 50 percent of their schedule. That responds to concerns that Superior Court judges often have to travel long distances and stay away from their homes and families, raising costs.
"We've attempted to satisfy every concern that has been raised"
regarding the counties affected by the bill, said Warren Daniel, R-Burke. He said lawmakers he's spoken with from those counties were on board with the changes.
Marion Warren, director of the N.C. Administrative Office of Courts, which assesses judicial workloads, declined comment on the new bill. Warren said he received the language just before Monday's meeting, and hadn't been able to read it all.
The bill was sent to the Senate rules committee for action Tuesday morning. Hise said the Senate Republican Caucus backs the bill, and expects it would pass a floor vote. Getting House support may be another matter. Hise said he hadn't discussed the changes with House members.
Hise said he doesn't know whether the two chambers will pass multiple, scaled-down judicial reform bills, or consolidate them into a conference committee report.
If the revised H.B. 717 and other judicial reform bills pass, the General Assembly would wait at least 10 days to adjourn, Hise said. That's because the governor can veto judicial redistricting bills, and if the General Assembly is in session, the governor has 10 days to sign legislation, veto it, or allow it to pass without his signature.