North Carolina Republicans introduced and advanced controversial legislation in the final days of session that would reshape district lines for judicial races across the state.
Republicans pushed House Bill 717 through the House Judiciary committee Monday evening despite fervent opposition from Democrats and every public speaker that attended. Those opposed urged restraint and for the bill sponsors to take more input from stakeholders. Some went further, arguing Republicans were attempting to shape the court for partisan reasons.
Bill sponsor Rep. Justin Burr said in response that he was instead "putting us on a level playing field," arguing it was Democrats who had previously gerrymandered the districts. Burr continuously said he welcomed input and suggestions for the bill, but was unbowed by arguments that the bill was being rushed.
Democrats questioned the issue of race in light of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that maps drawn by General Assembly Republicans were illegal racial gerrymanders. Burr said he didn't take race into account in drawing the maps. Democratic Rep. Graig Meyer questioned Burr how the maps could be then be found to be in compliance with the Voting Rights Act under judicial review.
Burr: "I believe these districts will comply with the law and unless we have a judge trying to legislate from the bench, they should be upheld."
Meyer: "Representative Burr, what I was looking for was not your belief, but we have a requirement to make sure that our redistricting efforts meet the standards of the federal Voting Rights Act."
Burr responded he believes the maps meet those standards.
House Minority Leader Darren Jackson asked Burr "was AOC, the Conference of DA's, the Bar Association, the Conference of Judges, the Conference of Public Defenders, anyone like that, any group like that consulted about these maps?"
Burr: "No, sir, but they're more than welcome to speak up now and contact any of us and express their opinions. After all, we are elected to make these policy decisions and that's what I'm presenting."
Democratic Rep. Duane Hall said the bill is gerrymandering, plain and simple.
"These districts will result in, in district courts, 14 districts that will likely elect a Democrat and 41 that will likely elect a Republican. If you switch to superior court, we have 12 districts that will likely elect a Democrat, and 45 that will likely elect a Republican. This a major, major piece of legislation."
The committee then got an earful from more than a half dozen public speakers comprised of activists, judges and District Attorneys. Marcia Morey is a former judge from Durham.
"Take your time. This is the judicial system. There are courts. There are people waiting for justice. This is going to delay the process. We have no input, as we have heard, from any stakeholder. It affects hundreds of judges who have spent their lives dedicated only to the people they serve."
But the bill passed the committee 7-5 along partisan lines, and could be next before the full House.