Gerrymandering and Judges

by John Ager

As I wrote to you all last month, special sessions in Raleigh bear a close eye. They lend themselves to legislative maneuverings to bring forward controversial bills with little debate or notice. Voters, interest groups and legislators are often surprised and have to scramble to understand the intentions of the bills. Meaningful debate occurs only in the caucus of the majority party, which is held in private. As many voters have discovered, North Carolina has been the victim of severe gerrymandering. We are still litigating districts drawn in 2011, costing large sums of taxpayer-funded legal fees.

Judges have thrown out Congressional and NC House and Senate districts on the grounds of “racial” gerrymandering. In an earlier special session, new districts were drawn. The court has yet to rule on whether these new maps will be accepted for the 2018 election cycle. The judges did ask that a list of “Special Masters” be submitted, whose task would be to draw the maps on behalf of the court. In any event, no districts west of Charlotte are likely to be changed.

There is a larger question hanging over these maps, however. The US Supreme Court is considering whether or not the time has come to limit “partisan” gerrymandering in a case out of Wisconsin. Can state lawmakers continue to draw maps that benefit the political party in power? What has changed is the ability of computer programs and “Big Data” to create extreme voting districts where politicians choose their voters rather than the other way around. North Carolina is a “purple” state, almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. And yet our state sends 10 Republicans and three Democrats to the US House, and the Republicans hold a “supermajority” in both the House and Senate in Raleigh.

Just last week, “partisan” gerrymandering was on trial in Greensboro in another important case: Common Cause vs. Rucho. Common Cause is an interest group fighting for fair elections in general and an end to the gerrymander in particular. Senator Bob Rucho helped to create the districts in question, and is now retired from the General Assembly. This court case is another attempt to overthrow partisan districts in North Carolina. It should be noted that HB 200, a bill with bipartisan support, would set up a nonpartisan method of drawing districts, but it has never been voted on.

And out of frustration with so many court decisions overthrowing not only voting laws, but many other bills, the General Assembly has taken aim at the North Carolina judicial system. As one of the three pillars of the separation of powers, our court system must remain independent and non-partisan in its relationship to the legislative branch. The judicial system must resist political influences in making decisions and render reasoned and impartial decisions. Let me go through some of the bills relating to our court system.

In a surprise announcement, we were called back to Raleigh on October 17 for one vote, an override of a bill vetoed by Gov. Cooper. The bill actually had some parts I liked (reducing primary winning percents from 40% to 30% and making it easier for smaller parties to list their candidates). But at the last minute, a provision was added to eliminate all judicial primaries for 2018.

HB 717 set up new judicial districts across the state. Buncombe County has been divided into two districts, and is basically a gerrymander. There has been an uproar across the state against this bill, in large part because of the process. I recently received a Resolution from the 28th Judicial District Bar, stating that the Legislature should “…be respectful of historical geographical boundaries when deciding whether to split Buncombe County into two judicial districts and that the North Carolina Legislature hold over voting on this matter until the next session to allow all stakeholders time to review and provide input on these important decisions.” At this point, HB 717 has passed the House but not the Senate.

During our regular Session, two more judicial laws were passed. One would make judicial races partisan (candidates would have D’s and R’s next to their names). North Carolina would be the first state since 1921 to change to a partisan election for judges. A second law reduced the number on the Court of Appeals from 15 to 12, preventing the governor from making three appointments to replace judges who are retiring.

Furthermore, judges used to be able to partially fund their campaigns with public funding, minimizing special interest money affecting our courts. That funding ended, and the year afterward over $6 million was spent on a NC Supreme Court election.

Just after our vote on the override, another bill was filed to amend the state constitution to require all judges to run every two years. (Our current Supreme Court terms are eight years.) Bob Orr, a former justice of the Supreme Court and a prominent Republican, was quoted in the Charlotte Observer, that this move is a “…continued effort to try and intimidate the judiciary. It’s just wrong.”

Finally, there is a move to take voting for judges away from the people altogether, and allow the legislators to appoint them. That plan would be the ultimate breakdown of the separation of powers in our state. There is an argument to be made for merit selection of judges, but only if every effort is made to remove politics from the process. Thank you for allowing me to serve you in Raleigh.

Rep. John Ager, District 115 North Carolina House of Representatives

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