North Carolina legislature looks to keep power by gerrymandering courts

The Republican-majority legislature won’t give up its desperate attempts at power grabs.

Rep. Garland Pierce (D-Scotland) addresses protestors during a special session at the North Carolina Legislature. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerry Broome
Rep. Garland Pierce (D-Scotland) addresses protestors during a special session at the North Carolina Legislature. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerry Broome

A North Carolina legislator shared an unusual tweet on Sunday: a plan to gerrymander the state’s districts for prosecutorial and judicial elections.

Rep. Justin Burr (R-Montgomery, Stanly)’s tweet, which noted that the redistricting will be considered in House Bill 717 on Monday, was met with criticism from other lawmakers.

Gov. Roy Cooper (D) blasted the new maps as an effort to “rig” the courts in favor of the GOP-controlled legislature. In an interview with NC Policy Watch, Rep. Marcia Morey (D), a former judge, also criticized the change, as well as the less-than-24-hour notice given, since the legislature will be voting on the maps at 4 p.m. on Monday. “Why did we learn about this on Twitter?” asked Morey. “There’s no communication and they’re caught off-guard.”

This is not the first time this year that North Carolina legislators explored the possibility of gerrymandering judges. Several African American judges spoke out against an earlier plan, arguing that it would lead to less diversity on the bench.

The news follows the legislature’s proposed budget — introduced last week— which includes several provisions to handicap the governor and Attorney General’s ability to challenge unconstitutional laws. The budget prohibits Gov. Cooper from using his office’s attorneys without the legislature’s permission. Cooper would have to get the legislature’s permission to sue or pay lawyers out of his pocket.

The budget also seeks to force Attorney General Josh Stein (D) to defend the legislature whenever it is sued, after Stein refused to defend the discriminatory 2013 voting law. Mark Joseph Stern, a writer at Slate, noted that this “deprives the attorney general of his traditional discretion and raises grave constitutional concerns about legislative interference in executive affairs.” Gov. Cooper will likely sue to stop the restrictions on lawsuits before they go into effect.

The budget drastically cuts funding for Stein’s Department of Justice by 40 percent. “I am deeply troubled that the General Assembly would direct the Department of Justice to eliminate the attorneys who work to prosecute criminals and keep them behind bars, who save taxpayers millions of dollars by defending against frivolous suits, who keep corporate bad actors in line, and who protect our clean air and water,” Stein said.

Gov. Cooper said he will veto the budget, but Republican legislators have a supermajority that lets them override vetoes. North Carolina voters in 2016 chose Democratic candidates in most of the statewide elections, but the gerrymandered Republican legislature has done everything it can to negate the results of the election by taking power away from the other branches of government.

The North Carolina legislature has had an astounding losing streak in the courts lately. The Supreme Court recently struck down its congressional redistricting maps for illegally packing African American voters into a few districts, and it left in place a lower court’s ruling that the legislature’s 2013 voter suppression law targeted black voters “with almost surgical precision.”

The Republican-controlled legislature has also passed a series of bills to limit the authority of the Democratic governor, and many of these bills have been halted in state court. These losses still haven’t stopped them from seeking more power over the governor and the courts.

Billy Corriher is the Deputy Director of Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress.

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