Politics & Government

The way you choose judges could change dramatically. Why that worries critics.

Mecklenburg District Judge Paige McThenia presides in a recent hearing.
Mecklenburg District Judge Paige McThenia presides in a recent hearing. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

The way Mecklenburg County voters choose judges would change dramatically under a bill that passed the North Carolina Senate Wednesday and appears to be moving quickly through the General Assembly.

The county's eight Superior Court judges, now elected from three districts, would run in eight under the bill. And the county's 21 District judges, now elected countywide, also would be elected from those eight districts.

"The intent was to run in smaller districts," said Sen. Jeff Tarte, who co-sponsored the bill with fellow Mecklenburg Republican Sen. Dan Bishop. "It gives you the opportunity to actually go and do your homework on the judges."

N.C. Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Cornelius File photo

Introduced this week, the bill passed two Senate committees and the full Senate by Wednesday afternoon. It goes to the House and appears to be on the fast track to passage. That's too fast for critics.

"The problem is at this point nobody trusts the process," said Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat. "The well was poisoned last year when they rolled a half-baked . . . set of maps that caught everybody by surprise. The controversy isn't over whether or not we need to update the map. It's how to do it. And using ultimatums isn't going to win anyone over."

The legislation is the latest in a string of actual and proposed changes to state courts by the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

Sen. Jeff Jackson of Charlotte Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com

Lawmakers have shrunk the state court of appeals, put party labels on judicial races, eliminated public financing for court elections and done away with this year's judicial primaries. They've also talked about appointing rather than electing judges, redrawing districts across the state and shrinking judicial terms — now as long as eight years — to two.

One national analyst said nowhere in America were so many changes coming to courts in such a relatively short time.

Bishop and Tarte point to the disparity in size of Superior Court districts.

In Mecklenburg, one Superior Court district wraps around the county from Davidson to Steele Creek to Ballantyne. It has 374,000 registered voters. Another district mainly in north and west Charlotte has 114,000. They each elect the same number of Superior Court judges.

In written testimony to a Senate panel, one expert acknowledged the disparity. In one district, he said, there are 250 felony jury trials a year. In another, only 20. And one district court district handled 2,800 child-support cases while another disposed of 260. Few dispute the idea that changes are needed.

Bishop called the disparities a "gross violation of basic constitutional .... equality."

He pointed to months of study by legislative committees. But unlike earlier efforts at court reform, there have been no blue-ribbon commissions or extended hearings from stake-holders.

Charlotte attorney John Wester, a Republican and longtime critic of the legislature's injection of politics into the courts, said he saw the bill for the first time on Tuesday and is still sifting through its potential implications. He says changes should not be rushed into law without "a full debate."

"The impact of redistricting is so significant that I hope for a slowed process ... bringing to the table citizens, the legal community and judges who have acquired a deep knowledge of this issue during their professional careers," Wester said.

In a memo, Bishop said the bill does three things. He said it balances populations among districts, eliminating big disparities. It eliminates "the irrational distinction" between the way District and Superior Court judges are elected. And he said it's all done with "minimal impact" on incumbents.

Tarte said he and Bishop tried to protect incumbent judges from running against each other.

But Chief Mecklenburg District Judge Regan Miller said the new district lines would pit incumbents against each other and force other sitting judges to move to some other part of the county to keep their seats.

One of the new districts, in the northern part of the county, has no incumbent judges living there. Two seats are assigned to that district.

"Two people will either have to move there or lose their seats," Miller said.

Another district, he said, has three seats but only two sitting judges living there, meaning another judge would have to move there to stay on the bench, he said.

Another district has four incumbents living there, but only three seats. Again, someone would have to move to another district or leave the bench. Last year lawmakers made judicial elections partisan.

Miller said said nonpartisan races also "made it much easier for judges to support their competent colleagues when you didn't have to worry about partisan politics." As of now, the county has 18 Democrats and three Republicans on the District Court bench.

Tarte said he doesn't expect that to change much.

"Candidly if the Democrats had proposed this they'd love it," Tarte said. "And we’d have had a few on our side complaining it was unfair.”

Anne Blythe of the (Raleigh) News & Observer and Colin Campbell of the Insider contributed.

Jim Morrill, 704-358-5059; @jimmorrill