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North Carolina gerrymandering bill pits black judges against other incumbents

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While the North Carolina legislature is working under a tight deadline to redraw election districts that courts have struck down for discriminating against black voters, it also made time to pass a measure to gerrymander state trial courts. The bill could result in a dramatic reduction in the number of African-American judges and other judges of color.

The North Carolina House of Representatives passed a bill today that would redraw the boundaries of the state’s court districts, over the objection of judges and other stakeholders. Rep. Marcia Morey (D), a former judge, said at a North Carolina General Assembly session on Wednesday that this bill is part of the legislature’s “systematic attack on our independent judiciary.”

Jim Blaine, an aide and “right hand man” to the president of the state senate, told judges in August that the goal of the bill is to get more Republican judges on the bench.

Since November 2016, when voters chose a new liberal majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court, the legislature has considered proposals to limit the governor’s authority to appoint judges, make judicial elections partisan, pack the state supreme court, and “unpack” the court of appeals to preserve the conservative majority. These attacks occurred as the state and federal courts began standing in the way of the legislature’s agenda by protecting voting rights.

The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Justin Burr (R), was criticized for initially trying to rush judicial redistricting through the legislature, and he has since toured the state to solicit feedback on the proposal. Judges across the state have spoken out against the changes. The North Carolina Courts Commission last week asked the legislature to postpone the changes, and several judges warned that the redistricting would cause disruption that would harm the citizens relying on the courts.

Many critics of the proposal, including judges, have expressed concerns about the impact on judicial diversity. An analysis by NC Policy Watch reported that judges of color on the district courts are more likely to be “double bunked,” meaning that they are in a new district with another incumbent. The analysis found that 10 of the 12 districts that double-bunk judges are “majority Democrat,” and more than half of all judges of color are pitted against another incumbent.

“This craven attack on our courts illustrates how far an illegally-gerrymandered legislature will go to maintain power and influence,” Melissa Price Kromm, director of North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections, told ThinkProgress.

“The same legislators that have gerrymandered themselves into safe districts are now trying to eliminate the opportunity for voters to make their voices heard in the judicial branch,” she added. Kromm helped organize a march to the legislature on Wednesday to oppose judicial gerrymandering.

The bill is the latest of many other changes the legislature has made to the courts that could inhibit diversity on the bench. A 2013 bill ended the state’s widely-respected public financing program for judicial elections. The program — supported by judges on both sides of the aisle — offered candidates for appellate courts several hundred thousand dollars for their campaigns, if they qualified by raising a certain number of small contributions. These programs can help diverse candidates, who often lack connections to networks of wealthy campaign donors, win elections. Democracy North Carolina, an organization seeking to increase voter participation, noted that in 2011, all of the female and black appellate judges in the state had been elected with public financing.

To allow more time to reorganize judicial election districts, the legislature is also considering a bill to cancel the 2018 primary elections for North Carolina judges, as well as a bill to end judicial elections altogether and allow the legislature to appoint judges.

“Eliminating primaries for judicial elections in 2018 is about buying more time to figure out how to agree on either new and gerrymandered judicial maps or some other plan like merit selection,” Rob Schofield, policy analyst for NC Policy Watch, told the Winston-Salem Journal.

Kromm criticized the bill. “You can’t eliminate an election to grease the wheels of partisan politics,” she said.

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