Republicans picking up pace on judicial redistricting deal
By GARY D. ROBERTSON
Jan. 19, 2018
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly are picking up the pace on creating new judicial election districts, with some leaders hopeful Friday that an agreement could come next week.
House Speaker Tim Moore and the chamber's top judicial mapmaker expressed optimism in interviews that a deal would be reached very soon on redrawn election lines for Superior Court and District Court seats and for local prosecutors.
During a quick, compulsory House floor meeting Friday morning, Moore also told chamber colleagues to be prepared for full work sessions and recorded votes starting Tuesday. Moore told The Associated Press he thinks a deal on judicial redistricting between the two chambers can be expected soon.
The impetus for judicial changes came from House Republicans last summer. Their Senate counterparts only began weighing changes in November and suggested Friday that more time may be needed to get on board. Sen. Warren Daniel of Burke County, a co-chairman of a joint House and Senate judicial reform committee, said it was too early to know whether enough Senate Republicans would support a final plan.
The goal for Senate Republicans, Daniel said, would be "to have something that could be presented to both bodies by the end of next week." The joint committee is scheduled to meet on Monday, with the release of a new map option on the agenda. The Senate hasn't finalized plans for next week beyond Monday.
Nearly unified support from Republicans in their veto-proof House and Senate is important if Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoes the final plan, meaning an override would be needed for it to be enacted. Cooper and Democratic lawmakers are likely to oppose boundaries unless they are delayed for additional outside input, particularly from judicial groups and Democrats.
Democrats and their allies have called recent proposals partisan gerrymanders that would favor Republicans and mark the latest GOP legislation to tilt courts in their favor. Map opponents also say too many pairs of black incumbents would be drawn into the same districts, meaning one of the judges could not win re-election.
Republicans say they've given Democrats plenty of chances to present alternate maps. Rep. Justin Burr of Stanly County, the sponsor of the House judicial redistricting bill, has met personally with many judges and said Friday that racial gerrymandering claims haven't been backed by facts. Daniel said, however, it would be good to review where judges live to evaluate the impact.
Republicans have said it's time to overhaul judicial districts statewide for the first time in several decades to reflect growth and make judicial election boundaries within urban counties more equal in population. They have cited redistricting experts who have suggested the current lines could be susceptible to constitutional challenges.
Legislators also have been debating whether to propose to state voters a new way of selecting judges that would eliminate head-to-head elections. But Moore, from Cleveland County, and Sen. Ralph Hise of Mitchell County said Friday there is no consensus now on a replacement, which would require a constitutional amendment and referendum.
The legislature canceled this year's judicial primaries. Republicans said they did so to keep working on districts further into 2018 without causing confusion, since candidate filing would have started in February. Now the judicial filing period is in June. Democrats are challenging the cancellation in federal court, with a hearing set for Wednesday.