Groups rail against GOP judiciary proposals
By Seth Thomas Gulledge
The Daily Reflector
Wednesday, December 6, 2017
About 60 people gathered Monday night to rally against what they perceived as partisan attacks against the North Carolina court system by state Republicans.
NC Voters for Clean Elections, Democracy NC, NC NAACP and Progress NC joined together to host the “Empty Chair Town Hall” to discuss legislation which they believe will wreak havoc on judiciary independence and nonpartisan nature of the court system. The group invited local representatives in General Assembly to the event at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Greenville.
State Sen. Don Davis and Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, both Democrats, attended the event. Sen. Lewis Pate and Reps. Susan Martin and Greg Murphy, all Republicans, did not attend, although Murphy sent word he had a prior obligation.
Melissa Price Kromm, director of NC Voters for Clean Elections, walked the audience through a brief history of what she said were attacks on the court system by state Republicans. She criticized House Bill 717, which redrew the judiciary districts.
She said the news lines would force minority judges into contested races with each other, limiting minority representatives in the judiciary. HB717 has been passed by the house, but has not gone to vote in the state Senate.
“It’s not about good public policy, it is about a way for them to elect more conservative judges,” Kromm said. “It takes your right to vote for judges away from you.”
At the heart of most of the discussion was legislative appointment of judges. Kromm said about 75 percent North Carolina voters agreed they should have the right to vote for judges and did not think a “merit-selection” system discussed by the legislature would be fair. Under that system, the legislature would appoint judges who would have to stand for a yes-no merit vote for re-election.
Additionally, Kromm criticized the proposed Senate Bill 698, which would cut terms for all judges to two years. Currently Superior Court judges serve eight years and District Court judges serve four years.
Kromm jabbed at Pate, Murphy and Martin for skipping the event. “Absent, that says a lot about who they are, they’re making really big changes to the judiciary, but they can’t be here to talk about it,” she said.
She read the response Murphy provided in lieu of his absence. Murphy said in the response his that his efforts to protect the court system locally speak for themselves. He also encouraged guests to reach out to judges in the county for their opinion about his support.
“That tells me nothing about where he stands on any of these issues,” Kromm said.
Jerrette Pittman, an assistant district attorney in Pitt County, stood up to defend Murphy’s efforts against HB717. He said Murphy prevented the legislature from dividing the county between two judicial districts.
Davis and Farmer-Butterfield agreed with Kromm’s assessment and called voters to action. Farmer-Butterfield said the core issue was that changing the judiciary would make even more people disillusioned by the justice system, especially African Americans.
“People are already skeptical and do not trust the judicial system, as many of you know,” she said. “Especially people that look like me, so what are we going to do? Make people even more skeptical that there is justice and equality for all?”
Don Davis said that the issues presented Monday night were important to the future of the state and welfare of its citizens.
“Let’s just be honest and real about it, many people right now today, or at least we feel, are not getting a fair shake by the system,” he said. “That’s today, as we speak, as we understand the existing system. My friends, I must believe that justice should be blind, even though right now there’s maybe some peaks taking place.”
Davis said it is almost unimaginable to think that steps proposed for the system will make it more just. He said a legislatively appointed, partisan judiciary is like going to a football game where the referees are wearing one of the team’s jerseys and have predetermined the penalties they are going to call.
“What I’m heading with is, when you infuse the system with money and partisan politics, that’s what you get,” he said. “I am truly afraid of the day, or even to imagine, going before a judge and it depending on what political party I’m from, or hear this, how much money I contributed to someone’s campaign. We’re better that this, we’re better than this as a state.”
At the end of the the session, Kromm invited attendees to rejoin her at the Pitt County Courthouse steps on at 11 a.m. on Dec. 14, for a news conference related to the same issues.
Contact Seth Gulledge at firstname.lastname@example.org or 329-9570.