By: Nelda Holder
At a time when the state of North Carolina is under the judicial microscope for unconstitutional racial gerrymandering in its legislative redistricting, a new set of maps that scramble the state’s established judicial districts has received a loudly voiced “Slow down!” from various quarters.
The new maps, released in a mid-summer tweet by Rep. Justin Burr of Albemarle (R-Montgomery/Stanly), reshape judicial lines across the state in ways that affect the entire court system. Judges and district attorneys may be running in different jurisdictions, or find themselves cut out of the electoral pie altogether. Court administrators and services stand to be shuffled, with accompanying public confusion. And here in Buncombe County, a longstanding and coordinated countywide system will break into two jurisdictions, as Judicial District 28 splits apart to become Districts 39A and 39B. This proposed redistricting is outlined in Burr’s House Bill 717.
The Buncombe County split would mean moving from the current countywide election of two Superior Court judges, to voting split between the two new districts, with one judge elected in each. The District Court judge elections would change from countywide elections for seven seats to district-restricted voting — three judgeships in one new district and four in the other.
What’s at risk here
“We have a really long history of doing positive things for the community as a bar,” District Court Judge Susan Dotson-Smith stressed in an interview regarding the proposal to split District 28. “And part of the reason why is we have avoided the divisiveness that comes from (such an) artificial split in the district. It disenfranchises the voters.”
Dotson-Smith, who spoke before the NC Courts Commission on September 29 as a member of the District Court Judges Association, believes there is a need to look at the state judicial system comprehensively. “It’s been a long time,” she acknowledged in a personal interview. But her testimony before the Courts Commission in Raleigh centered on the dangers of splitting a county of Buncombe’s size into more than one district.
Mentioning such county-focused accomplishments as the Mediation Center, specialty courts, and a focus on pro bono services, Dotson-Smith stressed, “We can do this as a united bar.” She believes, therefore, that instead of looking at what’s wrong, any move to redraw judicial districts should first look at what’s right. “And single county districts appear to be working,” she stressed. The priorities of the current District Court here, she emphasized, focus on “everybody in the community,” and not an artificial district.
Technically, the maps presented by Rep. Burr “double-bunk” Buncombe County’s two Superior Court resident judges, Dotson-Smith then pointed out. That means that an election under the residency requirements of the new maps would force one current judge out. And that, she stressed, eliminates experience on the job in favor of seating a potentially inexperienced new judge in the new district.
The redistricting proposal makes no change in the overall number of District Court judges (currently seven: four women and three men), but would put three judgeships in one of the new districts and four in the other. Because of the residency locations of the current judges, Dotson-Smith pointed out that the split directly jeopardizes diversity in the local court. “There is a risk, I think, of losing our one person of color (Chief Judge J. Calvin Hill),” she said about Buncombe County. She then pointed out that other judges at the Courts Commission hearing also stressed the pending loss of “years of experience” when judges are eliminated by district lines.
“The civility and ability to work together are also factors to consider. We work as a team right now. If we have to run against each other, (it’s) going to be hard,” Dobson-Smith lamented.
Advocating against regression
It’s been over 50 years since a comprehensive look at the state judiciary moved through the Legislature, but many people are questioning the new bill for precisely its lack of comprehensiveness. And many public advocates are asking for a slowdown.
Irving Joyner, professor of law at North Carolina Central University School of Law in Durham, strongly condemns the potential statewide effects on minority representation in the judiciary. “If passed,” he said in an emailed statement, “HB 717 will reconstitute (judicial districts) in a manner which will have a regressive impact upon the election of African Americans and women. Districts from which African Americans and women have previously been elected have been reconfigured in a manner which will pit them against each other in future elections.”
Joyner’s analysis is that the current bill “packs and stacks” the few districts with large African American populations, and was designed “to create many new districts with white Republican majorities.” This, he declared, “runs afoul of the Voting Rights Act” and will result in “the election of Republicans rather than … ensure the election of competent, unbiased and diverse judicial candidates.”
Joyner further asserted that the proposed legislation “totally ignored … the workload distribution which must be considered when creating and locating judicial districts.” That criterion, in the past, has been “effectively used to ensure that there is an appropriate balance between the needs of each courthouse and the judicial resources which are provided around the state.” In destroying that balance, Joyner said, the current bill “jeopardizes the opportunities for African Americans to be elected as judges, and destroys the faith that citizens have that justice will be available to them without political influence or favor.”
A version of this article was originally published October 11, 2017, in Asheville’s Urban News. It is reprinted here with permission. Since it was written, the NC General Assembly has overridden Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of legislation that cancels the state’s judicial primary in 2018 (see Senate Bill 656), and modified that judicial district line that was drawn for Buncombe County — though the county remains split in the pending legislation.