Imagine a guy walks into Cheers bar and starts carrying away chairs and moving the liquor bottles, while Sam, Norm and Diane look on, befuddled.
Lawyers say that’s pretty much what is happening to North Carolina’s courts as N.C. Rep. Justin Burr, an Albemarle Republican, pushes to redraw the state’s judicial maps.
Last week, Burr met with a group of Charlotte district court judges to describe his plan, which he floated earlier this year during a legislative session. He says no one has revised the maps for superior and district court judges in many regions since 1981, even though North Carolina’s population has soared with urban areas booming and rural regions emptying.
His plan would move more judges into urban areas at the expense of less populated areas. It could also force some judges to either run against each other or move residences to avoid such contests.
The meeting made clear that, as Burr said, “judges don’t like others to play in their sandbox.” They ripped his plan as overtly political and a threat to the diversity and independence of the bench. He held his ground, arguing that change is overdue.
Burr agreed that he launched his plan with little or no input from judges, lawyers, bar associations, district attorneys or state court administrators.
That was intentional, he said, because the legal crowd hasn’t touched the maps in 36 years for an obvious reason: They don’t want disruptive change. Trying to negotiate a better system with lawyers and judges is unrealistic because they have the political clout to delay or kill any proposals, he said.
The discussion in Charlotte focused on the 26th judicial district, which covers Mecklenburg County, where 18 of 21 district court judges are registered Democrats. The other three are Republicans. That matters because state lawmakers this year passed legislation that requires judges to identify their partisan affiliation, effective in next year’s elections.
The Republican supermajority in the legislature believes listing party affiliation can boost the number of conservative judges elected.
Under Burr’s plan, which would separate Mecklenburg into two districts, the number of Democratic judges would decline to about a dozen, according to a court official familiar with the legislator’s maps.
If Burr’s plan is rejected, Democrats will probably win all 21 judgeships. “It’s virtually impossible for a Republican to win a countywide judicial election in Mecklenburg because Democrats have such a large percentage of registered voters,” the official said.
One of the Charlotte district court judges most critical of Burr at the meeting was Lou Trosch, who changed his political affiliation from Republican to Democrat earlier this year. Presumably, he would face a tough battle to retain his seat.
There’s also a clear racial element to the debate because the number of Mecklenburg’s state court judges who are African-American is likely to decline if the county divides into two, several judges told Burr. About 74% of voters in a district drawn by Burr will be white, vs. 55% in the other.
No Republican legislators in the N.C. House or Senate are African-American.
While Burr is the point person for change, his bill has cosponsors including N.C. Rep. Scott Stone of Charlotte. Speaker Tim Moore, a Kings Mountain lawyer who typically controls much of the legislation in the House, has been mostly quiet on the issue.
“For some of the judges, it seems like it’s all about them and not about the voters,” said Stone who attended the meeting. “We’re messing with their livelihood and their seats, but that’s not how the system works.”
He added, “If you look at the maps now, they are crazy.”
Stone also shared Burr’s view on judicial intransigence. “Instead of working with you, they just do everything they can to fight it.”
That’s not a fair assessment because many in the N.C. legal community support new districts, but they insist designing the districts be a public process with input from many sources, says Charlotte lawyer John Wester, who is a registered Republican and a former president of the N.C. Bar Association.
“The legislature should have input from lawyer groups, and shine a good strong light so people can see why this is being done and how it should best be done,” he says.
N.C. Rep Joe John, a judge for 25 years in the district, superior and state appellate courts, says he isn’t aware of any N.C. judges who support the House bill. “I know it’s time to take a comprehensive look at the districts, but we shouldn’t make the change based on a one-person, partisan fiat,” says John, who is a Democrat.
The matter is expected to be debated when the General Assembly convenes in several weeks.