A proposal to extensively realign North Carolina's judicial election districts for the first time since the 1950s smacks of a Republican effort to put more GOP lawyers on the bench, critics said Wednesday.
About a dozen constituents told a state House committee that the exercise would boost rural and suburban communities where Republicans predominate at the expense of urban areas where Democrats cluster. The revamp, which the committee later approved for a future House vote, risks tainting courts with doubts that judges were selected through a process that favors GOP partisans, commenters said.
"You're entitled to a decision-maker that ... makes up their mind only on what they hear in the courtroom, not their personal views," said Nancy Gordon, a former District Court judge in heavily Democratic Durham County. "That's what the constitution guarantees each and every one of us. Stacking the deck does not support the constitution and due process."
Voting districts for local judges have remained much the same for more than 60 years. The state constitution doesn't say when population or other changes dictate altering judicial districts, saying only that the General Assembly shall redraw the borders "from time to time."
GOP representatives argue broad changes are needed now to create fairer and more uniform maps. But Democrats said the revamp is designed to help Republicans win more judicial seats.
One of the tools GOP legislators are using is splitting the state's urban counties into smaller judicial districts to give Republican lawyers from suburban areas an election foothold, said Rep. Darren Jackson, a Democrat from Wake County, which includes Raleigh.
"It's clear we're dividing up urban counties that tend to vote Democratic and we're not dividing up counties that tend to vote Republican at the moment," he said. "We are being the opposite of consistent."
There's nothing wrong with spreading the opportunities for candidates outside an area's urban core, said Rep. Sarah Stevens, citing a four-county mountain region where the bench is dominated by lawyers based around the town of Wilkesboro.
"People in the more suburban areas really can't run, or don't get a chance to run, because they're not in the heart of the city. By doing this, we give more people a chance to run," said Stevens, who represents neighboring Surry County. "I don't think it's a bad thing to allow people from various parts of the county, from various walks of life, to have the opportunity to run for judge."
The proposed judicial redistricting creates 11 districts where current jurists will be pitted against each other for election, forcing some experienced judges out, while 18 other districts would have no incumbents, said Rep. Marcia Morey, a Democrat who was a Durham district court judge before being appointed to her legislative seat this year.
That's just the nature of redistricting, said Rep. Justin Burr, a Stanly County Republican who is the plan's architect.
The committee approved the redistricting plan along party lines. Burr wants the House to vote on the redistricting plan when the General Assembly reconvenes next week. The Senate would have to take up the proposal after that.