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With Legislative Maps Done, GOP Looks At Judicial Districts

NC Legislature
W Edward Callis III
NC Legislature

With approval of new North Carolina legislative districts behind them, House Republicans returned Tuesday to Raleigh to advance their efforts to redraw election districts for trial court judges and local prosecutors.

Unlike a federal court's mandate to approve House and Senate districts before a Sept. 1 deadline, Republicans in the chamber aren't being forced to perform redistricting on the boundaries for Superior Court and District Court judgeships and for district attorneys.

In fact, a judicial expert from the UNC School of Government told representatives at the first meeting of the House judicial redistricting committee that wholesale changes to judicial maps haven't been completed since the advent of the state's modern court system in 1955.

Some GOP representatives argue broad changes are needed to create fairer and more uniform maps, eliminating large population inequalities among judicial districts within the same urban counties.

Proposed judicial maps first surfaced in late June but got pulled before legislators took a summer break.

Critics said the proposal by Rep. Justin Burr, a Stanly County Republican, hadn't received enough scrutiny by outside legal groups and the judges themselves. Burr said Tuesday he's now traveled across the state for a dozen meetings with local judges, DAs and others to get feedback, and suggested some of their concerns would be addressed in updated boundaries released in the future.

"We will continue to have a discussion and debate proposed maps and hopefully vote on those," Burr said during the 2½-hour meeting.

But House Democrats and allies continue to be suspicious about the maps, which Burr wants the full House to vote on when the General Assembly reconvenes in early October.

Like their criticism of the new House and Senate maps approved last month and the 2011 legislative maps that Republicans were ordered to replace following lawsuits, Democrats say Burr's proposal is about helping the GOP win more judicial seats.

"The proposed judicial maps are as racially and politically gerrymandered as were the legislative maps," Democrat Rep. Marcia Morey, a former Durham County District Court judge, wrote this week. "If passed, more litigation is sure to come." Burr has rejected gerrymandering accusations and has said the original judicial maps were drawn when Democrats controlled state politics.

During Tuesday's meeting, Morey pressed Marion Warren, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, whether the agency had any role in drawing the maps. Warren said no and that the office only provided routine judicial information to legislators, as they are obliged to do when requested.

Rep. Rodney Moore, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, said he was concerned Burr's proposal would force pairs of judges to run against each other. He also said he was worried how black judges would fare in the Charlotte area.

Even if judicial boundaries clear the House, they still must be approved by the Senate, which has been cool to making widespread changes. After the meeting, Burr was open to the idea of a deal in which passage of new maps would be linked to a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot that, if approved, would overhaul how judges are chosen. Burr said he believes Senate Republicans are interested in a "merit selection" process to fill judgeships.

"I think that's certainly something that could be on the table," Burr said.

While legislative redistricting maps weren't subject to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto stamp, judicial maps are — giving Democrats a chance to stop maps if Republicans aren't unified in supporting them.

Copyright 2017 North Carolina Public Radio

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