Silent March Press Conference Statement – HB 717
by Lekha Shupeck 10/4/17
House Bill 717, which the General Assembly will consider during this special session, is a radical reorganization of North Carolina’s court system. This court system was designed in the 1960s by a special commission, the Bell commission, and this commission was charged with carefully studying how to best serve the needs and protect the rights of North Carolina citizens.
However, while the Bell Commission took nearly a decade to study and create a unified court system, House Bill 717, which seeks to completely overturn the current order, has only been in process for six months. Moreover, a thorough study of judges’, lawyers’, and citizens needs has not been done, and there is little evidence that these were a primary concern for the lawmakers who drew these new districts.
This is supported by the fact that House Bill 717 has been almost uniformly opposed by every stakeholder in the state’s judicial system. Superior Court judges have spoken against it. District Court judges have spoken against it. Both the North Carolina State Bar and the Bar Association have spoken against it. And, most importantly, at the last public hearing, ordinary North Carolina citizens spoke against it.
Why? Not only is House Bill 717 poorly considered and disruptive, it constitutes an intentional partisan gerrymandering of North Carolina’s Court system. Research done by Maryclare Griffin, a doctoral student at the University of Washington, has shown that under the current bill, 33% of Democratic Superior Court judges will be “double-bunked” or put into a district in which they will have to compete with other current judges for a seat. By contrast, only 9% of Republican judges will be forced to compete in this way.
This partisan gerrymandering is intended to give Republicans control of North Carolina’s judiciary, and disenfranchise Democratic voters. But it also hurts communities by removing judicial resources that they need, taking judges away from growing cities and places with large minority populations, and moving them to districts that are safely Republican.
Superior Court seats will be taken from Asheville, Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Fayetteville, and Greensboro and more rural counties with a higher than average black population, like Scotland, Robeson, Nash, Edgecombe, and Wilson.
For example, right now Guilford county has seven Superior Court judges. This makes sense, because Guilford County is home to Greensboro, our third largest city.
Under House Bill 717 Guilford would lose two judges, and the districts are drawn such that five judges, four of whom identify as Democrats, would be forced to compete against each other for one seat. Meanwhile, the bill draws two new, safely Republican districts that will gain three of the remaining four judgeships. This means that urban communities with larger minority populations are losing the power to vote for judges who will preside over cases in their county, and are going to receive fewer judicial resources overall.
Why does this matter? Because courts are how ordinary citizens access justice. They handle divorces, child custody cases, small claims, juvenile cases, drug treatment court and many more matters that affect people’s everyday lives. Fewer judges means bigger caseloads, and a lack of judicial resources for the people who need them. Radical redistricting also means breaking relationships judges currently have with local institutions, like guardians ad litem and addiction treatment centers, which could hurt citizens’ access to these support systems.
Our judicial system should be concerned with providing justice for all, not rigging the system for one political party.
House Bill 717 is bad for ordinary citizens, bad for judicial systems, and wrong for North Carolina.