Guest Editorial: Keep politics out of NC judicial redistricting

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They’re right, and most legislators in both parties agree. The trouble is, it appears that the Republicans who are leading the remapping effort are putting a premium on getting more Republican judges elected, instead of increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the state’s judicial districts.

The remapping will shift the boundaries of the state’s Superior Courts, District Courts and district attorneys. Commonsense district lines would be a good thing. Politically gerrymandered districts wouldn’t be.

But political gerrymandering is the flavor of the day, month and year in Raleigh. The Republican majority appears determined to politicize the state’s judicial system and extend the party’s control to courtrooms at every level. The Democrats did that for years too, and only in the past decade or two have the courts become more politically neutral. But now we’re going backwards.

Election law has already been changed to require that all judicial candidates’ political affiliations are listed on the ballot. And the most recent law have made it more difficult for judicial candidates to avoid party membership. The General Assembly created separate requirements for those seeking judgeships. Those who belong to a political party can get on the ballot by simply declaring their candidacy. But unaffiliated judges — “independents” — need to also collect voter signatures to secure a ballot slot.

Meanwhile, the parties are preparing to throw money into judicial contests, politicizing our courts despite longstanding guidelines that forbid judges from taking stands that might compromise their objectivity. But the parties are under no such obligation and we fear that future judicial contests could get as ugly.

At a hearing last week, a special Senate committee discussed legislation approved last month in the N.C. House that redrew the boundaries for Superior and District courts and for district attorneys. Rep. Justin Burr, the Stanly County Republican who was the prime author of the remapping effort, said this is the first statewide effort to redistrict the judicial system in more than 50 years. More recent efforts have been piecemeal and partisan. “We have an unsystematic mess that in my view needs to be cleaned up immediately,” Burr told the senators.

And yet, as Democratic Sen. Terry Van Duyn of Asheville noted, Buncombe County was split into two District Court districts with four of the seven seats in Republican parts of the county. “It is difficult for me to come to any other conclusion, other than my county was cut in two for political purposes,” Van Duyn said.

During the hearing, two redistricting experts told the senators that both the existing and proposed judicial districts are ripe for constitutional challenges. It’s worth noting here that the legislative redistricting that began after the 2010 federal census is still mired in court challenges that have gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. We’d hate to see the state’s court districts thrown into the same kind of chaos, disrupting our already badly overburdened court system.

The solution to what could become another ugly standoff is as clear as it can be, but neither of the state’s major parties have been willing to go there when they hold the majority. The court districts should be redrawn by independent, nonpartisan election experts who are charged with following the federal and state constitutions and forbidden from engaging in political or racial gerrymandering.

The core principle of our system of American justice is that it is blind — unaffected by politics, race, creed, economic status or any other element that could pollute the evenhanded administration of the law. It’s a lofty belief that doesn’t always work out in practice. But in the redrawing of the state’s judicial districts, it should. This isn’t a job for politicians. They should hand it off to people who can do the job objectively and fairly.