October 10, 2017
Gavel Gap, North Carolina
by Samuel Rubinstein, Strategic Engagement Fellow, American Constitution Society
In North Carolina, the General Assembly is advancing a proposal that would add judges and district attorneys to a growing list of gerrymandered districts that already includes members of Congress and state legislators. The new maps will cut the number of judicial districts from eight to five, diluting the strength of urban votes. The new map cracks apart countywide districts in urban areas such as Wake and Durham counties. To accommodate their deliberations, the legislature moved to scrap judicial primaries planned for early next year, further tampering with voters’ choices.
Proponents call the plan an update to a system that has been unchanged for 60 years. But recently the North Carolina Courts Commission, a 30-member advisory board that helps make policy related to the state judiciary and that includes sitting judges from around the state, recommended delaying consideration of the new judicial boundaries.
Besides the lack of a transparent process and rush to approve new districts, perhaps most troubling is how the new maps would reduce diversity on an already un-diverse judiciary. According to the American Constitution Society’s Gavel Gap report, white men make up 66% of North Carolina’s judges, despite being only 31% of population.
But analysis of the proposal by NC Policy Watch shows that it would “double-bunk” more than half of all black district court judges in the state, forcing them to run against each other, with similarly severe effects on women and other minority groups, at both the district and superior court levels.
This is just the latest in a series of judicial attacks. Already, the General Assembly has switched judicial elections from non-partisan to partisan, eliminated public financing for judicial campaigns, shrunk the size of courts to deny the Governor appointments, and slashed the budget of the Attorney General, resulting in layoffs of dozens of career attorneys. The legislature is also proposing to eliminate popular election of judges in favor of selecting them by legislative election, further concentrating power in their hands. Although judicial elections are deeply flawed, a new report from the Brennan Center explains why legislative selection is equally problematic, which is why only two states use this method.
A fair judiciary is worth defending. Courts are supposed to be an impartial arbiter, insulated from the politics of the other coequal branches. Stacking the deck to make the courts subservient to the legislature is un-democratic, tramples the rule of law, and most of all, helps only those in power.