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RALEIGH (AP) - Members of a newly formed House and Senate committee dived back into the politically charged issues of judicial redistricting and judicial elections on Thursday, with several questioning details of a proposal to eliminate head-to-head elections in place for 150 years.
GOP legislative leaders from both chambers appointed the special panel with some hoping to quickly negotiate new election maps for trial court judges and prosecutors that could be used in this year's elections. Senate Republicans also want to see if a consensus can be reached on replacing traditional judicial elections with a "merit selection" method.
The committee's first meeting accentuated differences between the political parties - and even among Republicans - on the topics, raising questions about the pace of negotiations and whether Republicans would risk acting alone if Democrats didn't get on board.
Several House committee members raised warnings about the judicial selection proposal the Senate unveiled last week. House Speaker Tim Moore, whose chamber already approved a redistricting bill in October, anticipated a redistricting agreement with the Senate by the end of the month. But one of his top lieutenants couldn't say Thursday how long work on judicial issues would take.
"I believe it's too open to know at this point," Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County, a committee co-chairman, said in response to a question about a deadline. The committee could meet again next week.
The Senate judicial selection proposal would have the governor fill judicial vacancies for appeals and trial courts from a pool of nominees presented to him by the legislature. The General Assembly would offer the governor at least three candidates from a list compiled by a special commission appointed by the state's chief justice. That appointee would serve on the bench temporarily until voters decided in an election whether the judge would serve a single full term. The length of the term could be 10 years.
"Ultimately any good model has got to balance judicial independence with accountability," said Sen. Paul Newton of Cabarrus County, who is shepherding the Senate's proposal. "The goal here is to find judges that are most meritorious, who are the very best."
Some Democrats questioned how the proposal would ensure racial and gender diversity within the state's judiciary. There would be nothing to prevent a Republican-controlled legislature, for example, from offering a Democratic governor like Cooper only judges with GOP leanings.
"The voters are accustomed to having a choice of judges to vote for," said Democratic Sen. Floyd McKissick of Durham County.
Judicial selection changes would require an amendment to the state constitution and approval in a referendum. Voters would view the proposal as one that takes away their right to choose from multiple judicial candidates, warned GOP Rep. John Blust of Guilford County.
Even "if we came up with a foolproof system, I don't think honestly the public is going to accept it," Blust said.
Cooper has suggested he wouldn't back any judicial changes as long as Republicans hold a legislative supermajority, saying in a recent interview that Republicans can't be trusted because of previous laws that he said have weakened the judiciary. Only redistricting legislation would be subject to Cooper's veto, but his opposition to a merit selection referendum could sink the plan, with opposition by Democratic voters.