Representative Justin Burr obviously has a burr under his saddle, almost single-handedly leading an effort to redistrict the judicial and prosecutorial districts in our state. In the closing days of the legislative session he surprised most everyone by introducing House Bill 717, claiming in part that the current districts elect too many Democrats and more Republican judges are needed.
I don’t want either Republican or Democratic judges. I want jurists who will follow the constitution and laws of our state impartially. Their political affiliations should have no sway when issuing rulings, but that obviously isn’t the desire of our lawmakers. During the past legislative session we saw many new laws affecting our courts. They reduced the number of court of appeals judges by three seats, decreased the number of emergency judges by 70 percent, required judicial candidates be identified by political affiliation and cut funding to legal aid organizations, along with $10 million in budget cuts to the Attorney General’s office. A cynic might these border on judicial tampering or blatant attempts to interfere in the separation of powers in our state.
John Locke drew North Carolina’s first Constitution when the Lord’s Proprietors still controlled our colony. It was replaced in 1776 after Independence was declared. That document spelled out the three separate branches of government, appointing the governor (for a one year term) and judges for life. That Constitution was modified in 1868, and the current constitution was approved in 1971, with many amendments added. One common thread throughout these documents is found in Article IV, which reads, “The General Assembly shall have no power to deprive the judicial department of any power or jurisdiction that rightfully pertains to it as a co-ordinate department of the government….”
Current Chief Justice Mark Martin follows in a long line of distinguished modern-day Chief Justices that include Sarah Parker, James Exum, I. Beverly Lake, Henry Frye, and Burley Mitchell. Martin convened an equally distinguished group for a two-year study, The North Carolina Commission on The Administration of Law and Justice. It recommended a number of ways our current system could be reformed. Nowhere in these recommendations was any suggestion to alter our current judicial districts. In fact, since the report’s release in March of this year, it has received scant attention from by our General Assembly.
We can agree that judicial reforms are needed and both Chief Justice Martin’s recommendations, along with other proposals, deserve due consideration. There may even be some elements of wisdom in Representative Burr’s HB717, but the state, the courts, and our judges deserve better justice than a hastily drafted and quickly presented bill that by all appearances is on its way to approval in a special session of our legislature in October.
Burr says the bill’s enactment would better reflect population growth, geography and workloads by creating new, smaller districts and would add judges to some existing districts. Perhaps so, but many judges and DA’s disagree.
Judicial reforms demand a fair hearing in the court of public opinion and by our legislature before being enacted. However, there is no justice in passing them in a brief special session. As the late Chub Seawell, attorney, humorist and editorial writer, was fond of saying, “Call Your Next Case.”
Tom Campbell is the Executive Producer and Moderator of NC Spin.