Judicial Redistricting Hits Another Roadblock

Jan 22, 2018

The latest judicial maps, as proposed on Jan. 22, 2018.

It appears that judicial redistricting is again stalled in the North Carolina General Assembly. That comes after a recent show of confidence from leading state Republicans that the issue might pick up momentum.

Another iteration of political judicial maps was rolled out at a joint legislative committee on Monday. The introduction of new boundaries followed optimistic statements from House Speaker Tim Moore and Representative David Lewis (R-Harnett), who hinted that votes on the issue could come as soon as this week. By Monday afternoon, however, it appeared as though there would be no significant development in the seven-month debate.

Lewis was asked if the House and Senate saw eye to eye on these proposed changes. “No,” he said, “but we’re continuing to talk.”

He conceded Monday that no votes are coming on the issue this week, or possibly next. The Senate announced it will take no votes this week.

Legislative leaders said an agreement wasn't going to happen in part because they are awaiting resolution in a court case involving legislative districts. A three-judge panel last week ordered changes to two dozen House and Senate districts drawn by a court-appointed expert.

Republican lawmakers want a court to block that order, or at least allow them to make the changes themselves. If they are successful, they'd have to work quickly because candidate filing begins in three weeks.

House Lawmakers Proposed Judicial District Overhaul Last June; Debate Grows Contentious

Law experts and legal advocates have long been in favor of making changes to the judiciary and selection of judges, but there is no consensus on how to reform the system. The debate has grown contentious.

Conservatives pushing the reform point out that it has been more than 50 years since significant changes have been implemented. Republicans backing judicial redistricting say they’ve tried to listen to various sources on the topic, while not rushing the debate. Supporters also say that the workflow of judges has become imbalanced and an overhaul is needed to more efficiently distribute work.

Democrats, some legal experts and advocates have expressed wariness at the motivations that might be at play and the effects of any changes. Those opposed have also raised questions about how the maps could tilt the courts in favor of the GOP.

While the House has pushed the issue, it remains unclear what appetite state senators have to pass major changes to the judiciary. North Carolina’s governor cannot veto legislative redistricting efforts, but he does have the ability to weigh in on judicial redistricting. Republicans are unsure they would have the support to override a likely veto from Governor Roy Cooper.

Legislators also have discussed moving to a system of merit-based selection of judges. Precisely what that could look like remains unclear; it could include legislative appointments, retention elections, or some combination of a system where the fundamental nature of judicial elections in the state would change. Lawmakers would have to propose a constitutional amendment and voters would have to approve a merit-based system in a referendum.

Lewis offered a tepid outlook on merit-based selection Monday.

“We were possibly getting close,” he said. “It’s gotten very politicized though ... In fact we haven’t made much progress on merit selection.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.