With the exception of authoring formal opinions and issuing court rulings, it’s not often that judges step into the spotlight to make their voices heard.
Judges work for an independent branch of government and must remain neutral to keep the public’s trust. They take an oath to be impartial and deliver equal justice for all.
That’s why when a group of judges from Mecklenburg County recently called a press conference to decry Senate Bill 306, folks were a little taken aback.
“That should tell you something,” said Bill Powers, President of North Carolina Advocates for Justice, an organization that stands strongly against politicizing the courts.
SB306, sponsored by Republican Senators Jeff Tarte and Dan Bishop, seeks to split Mecklenburg County District Court’s single voting district into three, to mirror the Superior Court voting districts.
It’s one of a flurry of bills Republicans have filed this session to change the structure of the judiciary.
Proponents of the bill say that it will help voters get to know their elected judges better since the districts will be smaller and make it more affordable for judicial candidates to run in elections.
Opponents of the bill say there’s no reason for it other than to continue politicizing the courts. They see it as another attempt by Republicans to ensure their party takes over the bench in North Carolina.
At first glance, the bill looks terribly complicated. It is full of seemingly-random numbers and references to statutes with even more confusing data that appear to identify portions of districts. There’s almost no chance a member of the general public would, merely by reading it, understand the bill, its implications or how it could affect them.
The most simple explanation, however, is this: it will affect how Mecklenburg County residents vote.
Instead of all residents voting for each of the 21 District Court judges in Mecklenburg County (the judges’ terms are currently staggered so that different judges run in different elections), the judges will be split into three areas — districts 26A, 26B and 26C — with seven judges permitted to run in each district. It’s the same way residents currently vote for Superior Court judges.
The bill was introduced the same day Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed House Bill 100, which restored partisan judicial elections for Superior and District Courts.
It should be mentioned that before passing HB100, Democrats, and particularly House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson, warned Republicans that labeling judges with an “R” or “D” on the ballot would work against their party in liberal areas like Mecklenburg and Wake counties.
It should also be noted that no one from the courts in Mecklenburg asked Tarte or Bishop to alter their current districts — and in fact, the opposite occurred at the judges’ press conference.
“The goal of this bill is unclear and as drafted, it creates a number of issues that are of deep concern to the majority of the current judges,” said Regan Miller, the Chief District Court Judge. “The change that is being proposed is entirely unnecessary and does nothing to enhance or preserve the impartiality of the judiciary.”
Tarte has been quoted in the media as saying the bill is “straight-up political,” but said in a phone interview Thursday that voting demographics and partisan politics were never a consideration when drafting the measure.
He said his motivation is to better inform voters by giving them less candidates to get to know.
“They don’t have a clue who they are,” Tarte said of voters and their current judges. “I tell you, most have no clue in Mecklenburg; over four years, they select 21 district court judges, and my contention is, you can’t find five people who could name more than four or five district court judges, if they could name one.”
Powers, a Republican attorney in Charlotte who ran for District Court judge in Mecklenburg County and lost, said voters don’t vote for all 21 judges in one election.
He also pointed out that the District Court judges serve all of Mecklenburg County, not specific parts of the area.
“We stagger our [judicial elections] for consistency on the bench,” he said. “It’s not an onerous duty to know who our judges are.”
Currently, 20 of the 21 District Court seats are filled. Seventeen of the judges are registered Democrats and three are Republicans; 10 judges are women, 10 are white and 10 are African American.
Powers said it’s one of the most diverse benches in North Carolina.
“It’s something we should be proud of — I’m not sure why we’re messing with it now,” he added.
Tarte said the speculation that Republicans want to make it easier to get Republican judges elected in Mecklenburg County is not true. He said there was a rumor swirling at the General Assembly that lawmakers would draft a plan to create 21 separate District Court districts, and he worked on SB306 as a compromise to that.
Tarte also said he wasn’t fazed by Mecklenburg judges speaking against the bill.
“The one issue everyone was concerned about is diversity, and from my perspective, race, gender or whatever was just not even part of the the consideration of this one way or another,” he said. “[It’s] completely neutral. … I would imagine we’ll still end up with generally the same composition.”
The three Superior Court districts are comprised predominately of Democratic voters, but district 26C has a bigger concentration of Republican voters than the other areas.
Currently, the two Superior Court judges in judicial district 26A and 26B are registered Democrats. Of the two judges in district 26C, one is registered unaffiliated and the other Republican.
Currently, there are 307,644 registered Democrats and 168,937 registered Republicans in District 26, according to the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections.
Voter registration in the three judicial districts is as follows: 26A, 72,042 Democrats and 11,218 Republicans; 26B, 103,514 Democrats and 45,933 Republicans; and 26C, 132,088 Democrats and 111,786 Republicans.
As part of SB306, district court judges would have to live in the district they ran in.
Current voter registrations indicates that six of the judges would fall into district 26A, eight in district 26B and six in district 26C. At least one of the current judges would be required to either move from district 26B or not run for reelection at all, assuming they could.
Judicial district research published in a presentation online by UNC School of Government Professor James Drennan indicates that subdividing judicial districts is constitutional.
It states that there are only five districts that have the same boundaries for the same purposes.
When asked if he knew if other counties’ District Court districts mirrored Superior Court districts, Tarte said he didn’t know.
“I’m guessing — I could be wrong — they’re all kinds of configurations, but I don’t know,” he said. “[I’m] just taking care of my county, nobody else’s.”
It’s unclear whether similar bills will be introduced this session, but many in the legal community predict that there will be more, particularly in Wake County.
Tarte said he’s only heard from about four constituents and they were evenly split on being for or against the bill, and mainly presented him with questions about the bill’s potential effect and the timing.
“It’s a reasonable, thoughtful approach that … shouldn’t change the composition of the bench, shouldn’t change ideologically, diversity-wise or anything else,” he said. “It merely just allows the judges to be closer to the constituent they’re going to represent in a smaller number.”
The proposal could also, however, lead to situations in which residents residing in district 26A end up in front of District Court judges from district 26C — thus leading to situations in which judges decide the cases of citizens who had no chance to vote for him or her.
Miller isn’t so sure that the bench composition won’t change. He said at the press conference that SB306 “will do little to improve the geographical diversity of the bench and will only prevent more judges from moving closer to their place of work.”
Rep. Joe John (D-Wake), the only former judge serving in the General Assembly, said SB306 is, like many of his party members, of the belief that the bill is partisan politicization of the courts.
“As the bill sponsor openly concedes, his bill is ‘straight-up political,’ that is, it is another battlefront in the war seeking to destroy an independent judiciary in North Carolina,” he wrote in an email. “Judge [Neil] Gorsuch, in his confirmation hearing, properly stated that ‘we do not have Democratic judges or Republican judges in this country, just judges.’ Rank political partisanship is the very antithesis of what we all expect in our judges — fairness, impartiality and full adherence to the law as opposed to the position of a political party.”
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