Extreme Makeover: Judicial Branch Edition

Do you remember the show Extreme Makeover? Ty Pennington and his crew would take a steamroller to a struggling family’s home and completely remodel it in a week. That’s kind of like what’s happening in North Carolina - except it’s the legislature instead of Ty, the family isn’t struggling, it's unclear if a remodel is needed or if updating the drapes would do the trick, and it’s the entire judicial branch instead of a house.

One of the best exchanges from this week's Select Committee on Judicial Redistricting and Reform hearing:

North Carolina State Senator Paul Newton: “Regardless of which [judicial] system you are under now, if you are in a situation where the public believes that the judges are ruling consistent not with the law but with a political ideology, that would severely undermine the public’s confidence in the system and would be a trigger to change the way you are nominating judges. Do you agree that would be time to make a change?”Scott Gaylord, Professor of Law at Elon University and judiciary pro: “Our perspective influences what we think the law is.”Paul Newton gets up and walks out several minutes later.

Extreme Makeover: Judicial Branch edition

Do you remember the show Extreme Makeover? Ty Pennington and his crew would take a steamroller to a struggling family’s home and completely remodel it in a week. That’s kind of like what’s happening in North Carolina - except it’s the legislature instead of Ty, the family isn’t struggling, it's unclear if a remodel is needed or if updating the drapes would do the trick, and it’s the entire judicial branch instead of a house.

A super quick primer on the judicial branch:

The state judicial system deals with cases that involve state law, and the federal judicial system deals with cases that involve federal law. Simple enough. But within the state judicial branch, there are several types of courts that process everything from traffic tickets to the constitutionality of laws passed by the North Carolina General Assembly:

  • North Carolina Supreme Court (7 justices): The Supreme Court decides on issues regarding law and hears appeals from the Court of Appeals. There are no juries for these cases because they are not criminal or civil.
  • North Carolina Court of Appeals (15 judges): The Court of Appeals hears appeals from state agencies like Department of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services, and appeals from utilities (except for rate cases like hikes). There are no juries for these cases because they are not criminal or civil.
  • North Carolina Superior Courts (109 judges): The Superior Courts hear felony cases, civil and criminal cases involving >$10,000. These cases have juries.
  • North Carolina District Courts (256 judges): The District Courts hear misdemeanor cases and civil cases involving <$10,000. These cases have juries.The North Carolina Constitution gives the power to elect judges to the people. Like legislative districts, the legislature has the authority to draw districts, and voters select their pick from their districts. Some believe that the legislature will try to change the constitution to give the power to elect judges to the legislature instead of the people. This would require putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot.  

Does the judicial branch need an Extreme Makeover?

Both Republicans and Democrats believe that the judicial branch needs some updating, especially because some districts could be considered unconstitutional. Ideally, districts should have have equal populations. It has been over 40 years since the districts were drawn, so the population disparity between urban districts and rural districts has become pretty extreme. Despite the need to address population concerns, watchdog groups are extremely freaked out by the legislature's moves given their history of disenfranchising voters (see “gerrymandering”). Gov. Cooper believes that the legislature is simply mad that the courts have not always ruled in their favor on how legal the laws are that they've passed, so they want to pick their own judges. Given the exchange above and tweets from legislators, these are justified concerns. 

How do they want to remake the judicial branch? Here’s how they want to remake the judicial branch in North Carolina:

  • Drawing new judicial districts (a.k.a. gerrymandering) with House Bill 717:Watchdog groups believe this bill will follow in the footsteps of previous racially-motivated maps in order to increase the number of conservative judges who will be elected to the bench and reduce the number of judges of color and women judges.
  • Reduce the term limits of judges from 4 and 8 years to 2 years with House Bill 698: According to experts who spoke at recent judiciary committee hearings, judges can be more susceptible to special interest influence in their re-elections, and are more likely to rule with harsher criminal punishments, including the death penalty, as they get closer to their re-election. Experts suggest term lengths that are at least long enough to keep judges from constantly campaigning.
  • Ends judicial primaries for 2018 with House Bill 656 (this already passed):This ends the judicial primary, which means that voters could get a big ol’ booklet of judges when they go to vote in 2018. How confusing will that be for voters in 2018? Probably pretty confusing. Now, imagine you were running as a judge and had to compete with 20+ other judges to get voters' attention. What would you have to do? You’d have to get a lot money. And special interest money is already flooding the court system.
CLOSE