Judges: Let voters have a say in all our District Court races

An N.C. bill would result in voters having less voice about the district court judges who might hear their cases.
An N.C. bill would result in voters having less voice about the district court judges who might hear their cases. Observer file photo

From Chief District Court Judge Regan Miller and District Court Judges Rickye McKoy-Mitchell, Lou Trosch, Becky Tin, Donnie Hoover, Christy Mann, Paige McThenia, Kimberly Best, Elizabeth Trosch, Karen Eady-Williams, Donald Cureton, Jena Culler, Ty Hands, Gary Henderson, Alicia Brooks, Aretha Blake, Tracy Hewett & Retired Emergency Judge Jane Harper.

Since the inception of District Court 50 years ago, Mecklenburg County voters have elected district court judges in countywide elections. Through that process, our bench has evolved into one that reflects the diversity of the community over which it presides. Our bench is almost evenly split between male and female; and African American and white judges. Our judges are evenly divided in terms of where they reside geographically across the county. In this regard, Mecklenburg County District Court stands out as representative of our county’s population.

House Bill 717 proposes to end this decades-long practice of countywide elections, fundamentally altering how judges are elected to the district court bench. Sponsored by Rep. Justin Burr and co-sponsored by Rep. Scott Stone, HB717 divides Mecklenburg County into two judicial districts, 25A and 25B. District 25A connects the northern and southern parts of the county forming a non-congruous donut shape, yielding a new district in which 77 percent of the voters are white, compared with a countywide electorate that is 55 percent white. HB717 allocates the majority of district court seats (11 out of 21) to be selected by District 25A voters. In proposed District 25B, which forms a jagged circular shape in the center of Mecklenburg County, African Americans make up 45 percent of the voting population, compared to a countywide electorate that is 33 percent black. HB717 allocates 10 district court seats to be selected by District 25B voters.

One of our primary concerns about the impact of HB717 is that voters who live in 25B will be unable to cast ballots for a majority of district court judges elected to the bench. And, correspondingly, voters who live in 25A will not be able to cast a ballot for close to half of the judges on the district court bench. Yet our judges will continue to preside over matters brought by litigants from across the county, whether elected by those litigants or not. The people whose lives we affect should have the right to cast their ballots for every judge on the bench who may determine intimate and important issues in their lives; a right they have exercised for the past five decades.

Added to this redistricting proposal is the fact that partisanship will return to district court judicial races. It took years to reach consensus that party affiliation has nothing to do with how a district court judge rules in domestic violence, juvenile, criminal cases and family law cases. But recent legislation has paved the way for party labels to make their way back into district court judicial races beginning in the 2018 electoral cycle.

In combination with the move to partisan races, the manner in which HB717 divides Republican and Democratic voters between the two districts will heighten the importance of party affiliation in upcoming elections. This means judicial seats will be frequently contested. And it will lead to increased turnover and loss of consistency on the district court bench, which is a job that requires substantial training, courtroom experience, and collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders.

Our bench has developed unity and cohesion over time, providing justice in a fair and impartial forum that is reflective of the members of the community that we serve. The safety of a child; helping a family member break the chain of addiction; deciding whether a family should be evicted from their home; institutionalizing or releasing people who suffer from mental illness; the protection of the community; … all of these critical matters lie in our hands. The citizens of our county deserve a say in the election of every judge who performs these duties.