Senate leadership, on Tuesday, announced the creation of the Senate Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting, as well as the appointments to that committee.
The committee will likely discuss everything from the House proposed judicial maps to moving to a system of judicial appointments in the state.
Judicial redistricting has been a topic of hot debate, with proponents saying after more than a half-century the time is ripe to make changes to our judicial system, while opponents call the effort an attempt to take control of the judiciary in the state by Republicans.
In a release Senate Leader Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) said, “After 60 years of haphazard and sometimes contradictory changes to our judicial system, I hope our state can have a thoughtful dialogue on how to modernize, reform and strengthen it in the coming months. The judiciary touches every North Carolinian, so the conversation needs to include Republicans and Democrats, judges, legislators, district attorneys, clerks of court, executive branch officials, men and women of all races, and, yes, even lawyers. This committee will carefully consider all options on how we select judges including the House’s judicial redistricting bill, merit selection models, retention elections, and, if we maintain a system of elections, their frequency and partisan structure. I sincerely hope the committee reaches a consensus recommendation that will modernize and strengthen our courts.”
Already two pieces of legislation have been pushed to adjust the judiciary, the first HB717, approved only in the House, would install new maps for the judiciary and the second SB656, vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper and then overturned by the legislature.
House Bill 717
The House passed through its judicial redistricting bill, HB717, however the Senate left town before the House had even finished debate on the bill, apparently planning to take up the bill in January.
Moore said that the bill is needed to overhaul a system in which piecemeal edits over the last 50 years have left “unfairly skewed judicial districts.”
The bill passed the House in a 69-43 vote, with only one Democrat voting for the legislation, Rep. William Brisson (R-Bladen).
Of the bill Moore said, “It’s past time to correct the unbalanced representations produced by piecemeal edits to our court system maps with a consistent framework for North Carolina’s judicial divisions. I appreciate the exceptional service of Rep. Justin Burr in completing a thorough legislative process that included extensive public comment from judicial officials and stakeholders, the approval of three legislative committees, and the consideration of more than a dozen amendments from legislators. North Carolina’s population has grown rapidly over the past two generations, and it is a constitutional duty for the General Assembly to ensure the justice system serves all our citizens equally.
“Our changes incorporate public input, state resources, geography, population and caseload into an overdue update of North Carolina’s judicial maps. North Carolina voters deserve an equal voice and full confidence in their justice system, and our comprehensive legislative process has balanced their representation to reaffirm those rights.”
Opponents of the redistricting effort say that the new maps are more about giving Republicans advantages in the courts than increasing fairness in judicial districts across the state, but without the Senate taking up the legislation the effort appears to be stalled, at least until legislators return in January for another special session.
While HB717 has not been touched in the Senate SB656 has been passed, vetoed, and now overridden to become law.
Senate Bill 656
The Electoral Freedom Act of 2017, is the tenth vetoed bill that the legislature has overridden of Cooper’s since the governor took office in January.
The Senate overrode the veto in a 26-15 vote Monday night, clearing the three-fifths majority requirement to override a gubernatorial veto. The House passed the override vote by a 72–40 margin, also clearing the 60 percent threshold.
Two Republican senators voted against the override, while no Democrat senators voted for the override.
In the House no Republicans opposed the veto override but two Democrats did join the House in voting for the veto override.
The two Democrats whom originally joined the Republicans in passing the measure remained with them for the veto override vote.
Those Democrats were Reps. William Brisson (D-Bladen) and Elmer Floyd (D-Cumberland).
Of the veto override House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) said, “North Carolina is making it easier for candidates and parties to seek elected office, increasing ballot access to offer more options for voters. For unaffiliated candidates, the fastest growing segment of registered voters, we are relieving a major hurdle for their ability to participate in many statewide and local elections.”
Moore said that the legislation improves ballot access for more political parties and independent candidates in several statewide and local elections.
“The Electoral Freedom Act will make our election system more efficient, saving counties and candidates time and money by reducing the need for low-turnout runoffs in primaries,” Moore said.
The law also eases ballot access thresholds for third parties and unaffiliated candidates, as well as lowering the requirement for primary candidates to win a party nomination from 40 to 30 percent, likely reducing the possibility for run-off elections.
“The North Carolina House is carefully implementing changes to judicial districts, giving candidates for the court more certainty and fairness as they analyze changes to the elections process. The House is responding to input from court officials by allowing judicial candidates time to fully consider the impact of potential redistricting before deciding whether or not to file,” Moore said.
The redistricting Moore is referring is that which is involved in HB717.
Of the bill Senate Leader Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) said, “Gov. Cooper claims to be concerned about taking away choices for voters, but the reality is that letting his veto stand would have denied voters more choices at the ballot box. This override vote will not only improve ballot access for third-party and unaffiliated candidates, it will also bring certainty to our judicial election schedule and allow time for a thorough discussion about the best system to ensure the most highly-qualified judges are on the bench in North Carolina.”
Membership of the committee includes:
Co-Chair Sen. Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg), Co-Chair Sen. Warren Daniel (R-Burke), Co-Chair Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Bladen), Sen. Dan Barrett (R-Davie), Sen. Dan Blue (R-Wake), Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (R-Wake), Sen. Chuck Edwards (R-Buncombe), Sen. Joel Ford (R-Mecklenburg), Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Madison), Sen. Floyd McKissick (R-Durham), Sen. Wesley Meredith (R-Cumberland), Sen. Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus), Sen. Shirley Randleman (R-Stokes), Sen. Norm Sanderson (R-Carteret) and Sen. Terry Van Duyn (R-Buncombe).