Perhaps N.C. Rep. Justin Burr, a bail bondsman from Stanly County, could soon be known as the John Marshall or Louis Brandeis or Antonin Scalia — pick your favorite judicial reformer — of North Carolina jurisprudence.
Burr filed a bill, heard in a committee this week, that would change the election districts of the state’s judges, almost single-handedly changing the course of justice in North Carolina. More than just a political scrap, the changes could affect every business in North Carolina that gets involved in legal matters. And North Carolina’s court system is a large business in its own right, with about 6,000 employees who processed 31 million pieces of paper last year, according to a recent state report.
At a committee hearing, Burr said he had received no input from representatives of the state’s judges, lawyers, public defenders and clerks of court — essentially no one involved in the system. Democratic lawmakers immediately charged Burr with gerrymandering to produce a bench dominated by Republicans. Burr responded at the hearing that elected officials are supposed to make such decisions, and that he wants to make districts more uniform statewide and more equitable by population, geography and caseloads.
The committee voted 7-5 along party lines to recommend House Bill 717 to the full House. The measure would still have to pass the Senate and be subject to Gov. Roy Cooper’s gubernatorial veto. Cooper called the bill “an attempt to threaten the judiciary and rig the judiciary” in favor of Republicans.
N.C. Rep. Scott Stone, a Mecklenburg County Republican who cosponsored the bill, said in an e-mail that it would not be heard this week. North Carolina lawmakers convened in January and are expected to wrap up their work this week.
The judicial districts haven’t changed in decades. North Carolina has 109 Superior Court judges and 270 District Court judges, according to the state.
Burr, 32, didn’t respond to requests for comment. He serves two mostly rural counties, Stanly and Montgomery, and has been in office since 2008, having entered the N.C. General Assembly at age 23.
His statement of economic interests, required of state officials, doesn’t list ownership of any real estate, stocks, bonds or mutual funds. It does mention a stake in a partnership that owns North State Media, publisher of the North State Journal, a statewide weekly newspaper and website. The newspaper was started by Asheboro attorney Neal Robbins.
In 2015, Burr lost to Tim Moore in an election for the role of House Speaker after Thom Tillis was elected to the U.S. Senate. Later that year Moore said that Burr had “chosen to make himself ineffective and irrelevant this entire session.” Burr staved off a Republican primary challenge last year, winning by about 250 votes out of more than 12,500 ballots.