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Protesters urge voters to reject plans to change N.C. judiciary

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People stand in front of Pitt County Courthouse during a rally about the fair election of judges on Dec. 14, 2017. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Friday, December 15, 2017

More than 20 people gathered outside the Pitt County Courthouse slightly after noon Thursday to protest both recently approved and proposed changes to the state’s judicial system being pursued in the General Assembly.

“We are here to send a message to our politicians that we are (moving) forward together and we won’t take one step back,” said Calvin Henderson, president of the Pitt County chapter of the NAACP.

Progress North Carolina Action, North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections, the NAACP and other progressive groups have been holding a series of meetings and protests across the state in the lead-up to the General Assembly’s Jan. 10 special session.

Although legislators have not announced the special session’s agenda, a senate committee has spent the fall redrawing boundaries for the state’s district courts, superior courts and prosecutorial districts.

“The bottom line on this is the lawmakers in Raleigh don’t like judges overturning their laws that have been declared unconstitutional,” said Gerrick Brenner, executive director of Progress North Carolina Action. “Their goal is to politicize the courts and make them less independent.”

While Pitt County’s boundaries remain unchanged in the proposed plans, districts in the state’s larger metropolitan areas will be significantly changed.

In a reform bill passed by the state house, nearly half of sitting African-American judges will have to run against each other, Brenner said.

“There has been too many black judges selected recently in the courts,” Henderson said.

Legislation also has been introduced to cut all judicial terms to two years, instead of the four-year terms currently served by district court judges and eight-year terms served by superior court judges.

Earlier this year the General Assembly adopted legislation that cancels this year’s primary election for judicial races after approving another law that will allow the political party affiliation of the candidates to be listed.

Under prior rules, if three or more individuals sought a judgeship, they ran in a primary. The top two vote-getters then would appear on November general election ballot.

Under the new rule all judges would appear on the November ballot.

“It’s a big deal to eliminate any election,” said Melissa Price Kromm, director of North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections.

Kromm believes the primary was eliminated to give Republican lawmakers time to create a referendum that seeks voter permission to end judicial elections in favor of judicial appointments.

A lawsuit was filed earlier this week asking the court to re-establish the primary, claiming that if judges had to declare their political affiliation then the party has a right to select its candidate.

“It’s important to protect the institutions of democracy,” Kromm said.

Republican lawmakers want to control judicial appointments because the courts are rejected their 2011 congressional and legislative redistricting plans and overturned voter laws that required identification and shortened the early voting time period, Brenner said.

North Carolina hasn’t had appointed judges since after the Civil War, when its constitution was rewritten and gave voters the power to elect judges, Kromm said.

Henderson urged people to follow the lead of Alabama voters and reject politicians who he said want to strip civil rights from people.

One retired Pitt County judge said he opposes changing the terms of judges.

“I cannot understand how anyone could propose such a thing. I think district court judges and superior court judges should have eight-year terms. If a judge is doing his or her job, he or she shouldn’t have to be continuously running for office,” said retired Superior Court Judge W. Russell “Rusty” Duke Jr.

“Political offices have to be responsive to the people, but a judge has to be responsive to the law,” Duke said. “A judge needs the independence to follow the law without worrying what the public thinks. A judge’s position isn’t a policy-making position, it’s a different kind of animal.”

Regarding the issue of appointing judges versuses electing them, Duke said he thought there were good reasons for appointing appellate judges.

“Most people don’t know who these candidates are and it’s difficult to educate the voters without raising a large some of money. That ought not be something a judge has to do,” Duke said. Duke rain for a seat of the N.C. Supreme Court in 2006. He relied on friends across the state and the state Republican Party to get his name out to voters.

Kromm pointed out that for a period of time judges didn’t have to worry about financing campaigns if they participated in a public financing program. The Republican-led General Assembly ended public financing in 2013, she said.

While Duke could argue the appointment of appellate judges, he said district and superior court judges should remain on the ballot.

“I think local judges should be elected and should be elected in nonpartisan races,” he said. “Local judges should be elected because people know who these judges are.

“People need to have an opportunity and voice to choose their judge but once they choose, the judge should have to be an opportunity to be a judge without constantly running for re-election,” Duke said.

Voters also should think carefully about giving up the election of judges.

“People should be very hesitant to give up their right to select judges,” Duke said. “If they do give up the right to vote for judges, they should be mindful of who is going to do the appointments in the future.”

Duke points to the federal bench where judges are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate. Duke said he believes there are times federal appellate court decisions seem to be partisan.

Ultimately, Duke has confidence in people.

“I worked with jurors for 25 years. These are randomly selected citizens. I learned these people can be trusted to make some very, very important decisions. Decisions that affectl ives in a profound way,” Duke said. “I trust these citizens as voters much more than I trust the government.”

Pitt County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Marvin K. Blount III and Chief District Court Judge P. Gwynett Hilburn could not be reached for comment.

Retired District Court Judge David A. Leech also declined to comment because he is serving as an emergency judge.

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570. Follow her on Twitter @GingerLGDR.

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