Gerrymandering the Judiciary with House Bill 717

House Bill 717 is one of several bills aimed at changing the judicial system in North Carolina. What will these changes mean for the future of North Carolina's judicial system, and the thousands of North Carolinians who interact with the courts everyday?

January 6, 2018

This May, the Supreme Court of the United States reaffirmed a lower state court’s ruling that North Carolina’s district maps were unconstitutional due to racial gerrymandering.  This means that the state legislature attempted to unconstitutionally pack African American communities into districts with already high percentages of black voters – effectively diluting their voice and protecting the Republican party in power.

Now, the legislature is tasked with redrawing district lines again, and although racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional, partisan gerrymandering is not.  Although overtly undemocratic, partisan gerrymandering is a legal way for elected officials to pick their constituents, rather than the constituents decide their elected officials.

A case against partisan gerrymandering is inevitable, but rather than face these injustices, the republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly are taking a preemptive strike.  To protect themselves against the threat of a state court case ruling against their tactic, they are attempting to use the very idea to protect themselves, this time with judicial districts.

North Carolina’s judicial district lines have not been redrawn since 1955, which surely merits revisiting and consideration.  But rather than an open, bipartisan, and democratic process, HB717, a new bill in the state legislature, proposes a change to judicial districts, a change that would favor the party in power and further suppress the voices of low-income communities and communities of color.

Since the 1990s, party labels were left off the ballots for judges in North Carolina’s courts.  In an attempt to politicize the judiciary, party labels were reinstated in 2015.  Now, HB717 is taking the politics of the courts a step further.  Rep. Marcia Morey, a former Durham County District judge now State Representative for Durham, said that “The proposed judicial maps are as racially and politically gerrymandered as were the legislative maps.”

Additionally, the new redrawn judicial districts would decrease the number of judicial divisions from eight to five, and the number of district attorneys would decrease from 44 to 41.  One of the district positions that would be eliminated is currently held by Scotland County District Attorney Kristy Newton.  Right now, Newton presides over Hoke and Scotland counties, both relatively small in geography and population.  Under HB717, Scotland County would be paired with Robeson County and Hoke County would be paired with Moore County.  Newton explains that Robeson is significantly larger than Scotland, and she fears that the citizens of Scotland county will not be properly represented.  She also describes that “Hoke is a Democratic district and Moore is Republican, so I am afraid my citizens of Hoke County would be forgotten.”

HB717 simultaneously infringes on the independence of the courts, stifles the voices of minority groups in the state, and attempts to ensure that the Republican majority escapes the consequences of their undemocratic actions.  

Sarina Weiss