North Carolina Republicans are trying to agree on new judicial district lines and whether to propose replacing head-to-head elections for judgeships. But it appears unlikely that Gov. Roy Cooper and most fellow Democrats will embrace anything that emerges from the Legislative Building on those topics in 2018.
The Senate committee considering broad judicial changes was meeting again Wednesday, a week before options could be officially considered during a special session of the General Assembly. House and Senate GOP leaders have warned that judicial proposals may not be ready for the Jan. 10 session. The next regular work session is set for May.
Approving new judicial election maps sometime this year sounds probable. Whether Republicans can agree on a new judicial selection system — let alone get voters to back it in a constitutional referendum — remains unclear.
“We’re definitely going to have to do something with the maps,” Senate leader Phil Berger told The Associated Press in a recent interview, citing potential constitutional flaws with the current boundaries. “I think it’s still an open question to exactly what if anything we’ll do with judicial selection.”
House Speaker Tim Moore said in a release that his chamber is “prepared to take up final passage at any time” of a judicial redistricting plan.
Democratic lawmakers, buttressed by Cooper, have opposed alterations at every turn, accusing Republicans of partisan and racial gerrymandering with election boundaries for trial court judges approved by the House in October. They say the GOP is unhappy with recent rulings by Democratic judges against Republican laws.
Cooper suggested in an interview that he’ll oppose any judicial changes proposed by Republicans at least until they no longer have a veto-proof majority in the House or Senate. He said GOP laws that made all judicial elections officially partisan and reduced the number of Court of Appeals judges demonstrate their intentions to make the courts more Republican.
“What we have right now is a supermajority that does whatever it wants, and that’s not a good atmosphere to make changes in the judiciary, particularly when what they have done has been to inject more politics in the judiciary,” Cooper told the AP before the holidays. Democrats are banking on ending these veto-proof majorities in next November’s election.
While Republicans have the votes to pass whatever judicial changes they wish, Democratic opposition could remain an obstacle.
Three House Republicans voted against their judicial redistricting plan in October, so some could have to be persuaded to change their votes to override any Cooper veto. While Cooper’s veto power doesn’t apply to a constitutional amendment, voters would have to approve judicial selection changes in a referendum. Active opposition by Cooper and other Democrats could sink it in public opinion.
Cooper said he still wouldn’t support a “merit selection” plan similar to what he voted for while in the state Senate in the 1990s even if Republicans offered it to him because he said Republicans are acting hastily. The proposal would subject a governor’s appointees to appeals court posts to legislative confirmation, followed by an up-or-down retention election by voters.
Such changes, which would require a state constitutional amendment, would be “taking power from the people for the wrong reasons,” Cooper said.
Republicans are flummoxed by these allegations, pointing out the Senate judicial overhaul committee has held more than 10 hours of hearings since November. Merit selection plans have been debated for decades, backed by lawyers and judges from both major parties.
“We are hoping that we will get some feedback from the Democrats other than ‘we don’t like what you’re doing,’” Berger said.
Republican leaders of the Senate Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting prodded Democrats in letters to offer their own proposals, setting aside two hours for them at Wednesday’s meeting.
Leslie Rudd, a spokeswoman for Senate Democrats, said the party’s committee members would have no specific proposals Wednesday but would try to use time allotted to them.