Proposed new judicial districts for Western North Carolina as of Sept. 22, 2017

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RALEIGH – Despite calls to go slow, legislators seeking a change in the state’s judicial districts say they will press ahead and plan to introduce a redistricting bill early next month.

Legislators expect to return to Raleigh Oct. 4, when they could take up the bill, which would represent the largest reshuffling of North Carolina judicial districts in 60 years.

The state constitution gives the General Assembly the authority to redraw judicial districts, specifying that “from time to time” they shall divide the state into a “convenient number” of districts.

This week, a House redistricting panel led by Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, heard from judges and bar association representatives urging a deliberative approach to revision of the districts. The committee is working on a new version of House Bill 717, a redistricting plan that Burr offered earlier this year.

“The process needs to be done in a transparent, orderly fashion,” District Court Judge Athena Brooks, a former president of the North Carolina District Court Judges Association, told the committee.

“The maps presented in House Bill 717 force turnover in a short period of time that will result in disruption to the bench and the administration of justice.”

Brooks, a Republican whose district includes Henderson, Transylvania and Polk counties, said the district where she serves as chief judge would be unaffected under the plan, but many other would.

Existing judicial districts for Western North Carolina as of Sept. 22, 2017

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She said this worries her, given her experience in 2006 when districts in WNC were split, but did not receive the necessary funding or personnel.

“When you split a judicial district you tax the resources that are already in place,” Brooks said.

While it’s the General Assembly’s role to change the judicial districts when necessary, she said, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

North Carolinians expect legislators to proceed “in a thorough deliberate fashion with a mind to what is best for the administration in the state of North Carolina,” Brooks said.

The committee heard similar messages from the North Carolina Bar Association and the North Carolina Conference of Superior Court Judges.

But Burr said he plans to have new maps ready for review next week before the committee meets again Wednesday. He said the set of districts were inefficient and created in piecemeal fashion. The time has come, he said, to move forward with finalizing the maps.

“Quite frankly, this didn’t happen overnight and if the leaders of these different groups that stood up and spoke today, if this is something they felt strongly about addressing, it should have done earlier,” Burr said.

The North Carolina Courts Commission — a mix of lawmakers, judges and State Bar Association members — also may review the plan next Friday.

Burr first introduced legislation to revise superior court districts in April, but later expanded the plan to a full redistricting of the state’s judicial districts and a reduction in the number of judicial divisions from eight to five.

The biggest change in the west creates additional superior and district court districts in Buncombe County.

Also under the plan, western counties now in Divisions 7 and 8 would become part of a much larger Division 5, which would extend from Cherokee County to Mecklenburg County.

Judges also raised concerns Tuesday about the time and expense of creating larger geographical districts.

Democrats have questioned both the rush and the likely result of elections under the new plan, which they say will tilt the judiciary in favor of Republican candidates.

Should the new maps pass the General Assembly, they would still face an additional hurdle.

Unlike legislative redistricting plans, the state constitution does give the governor the authority to veto judicial redistricting plans.

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Gov. Roy Cooper expressed his disagreement with Burr’s plan when it was revised in June, saying it was an attempt to rig the courts.

Republicans have large enough majorities in both houses of the General Assembly to override most vetoes. Whether they would be united enough to override a veto of this bill remains unclear.

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Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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