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Local officials pan judicial redistricting plan

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BY LINDELL JOHN KAY
Staff Writer

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Local officials are standing together against state lawmakers’ plans to gerrymander judicial lines in the Twin Counties.

Republican proposals to redraw judicial lines have evoked a stiff nonpartisan rebuke from local governing bodies fearful of the high cost of separating the court systems in Nash and Edgecombe counties. Legislation calls for the separation of Nash County from the 7th Judicial District and for it to be placed with Franklin, Granville and Person counties.

“Splitting the 7th Judicial District of Nash, Edgecombe and Wilson counties will create a new, approximately 100-mile long, 'snake like,' disjointed district with very little in common,” according to a unanimous resolution recently approved by the Rocky Mount City Council and Nash County Board of Commissioners. The resolution has been sent to commissioners in Edgecombe and Wilson counties as well as other local municipalities and expected to be approved as soon as those bodies meet.

Many cases in the judicial district are handled in the Rocky Mount Judicial Center on Cokey Road in Edgecombe County. The split would increase the caseload at the courthouse in Nashville and create increased crowding and parking issues, likely forcing Nash County to build or lease court facilities in Rocky Mount with Nash County and state taxpayers picking up the tab.

All Nash County juvenile court cases are heard at the Judicial Center. If a split occurs, juvenile cases would then be required to be heard in Nashville and though Nash County is currently constructing a new courthouse, even the new facility would be inadequate for the additional caseloads and would result in increased costs, according to the resolution that authorizes the chairmen, mayors and managers of each body to correspond with the local legislative delegation and communicate the position of the local governments.

Nashville lawyer Mark Edwards, a registered Republican who drafted the resolution for use by the local governing bodies, said splitting Rocky Mount, Whitakers and Sharpsburg between two judicial districts doesn't make sense.

“Joint crime-fighting efforts will be hurt as the sheriffs in Nash and Edgecombe counties will have to deal with separate District Attorney’s offices,” Edwards said. “When we see reports of drug dealers being caught by our sheriffs and city police, we sometimes forget that the arrest is just the first step. The District Attorney’s office must do the hard work to convict. If our sheriffs are forced to deal with two separate District Attorney’s offices, they will have to spend more time on each case that straddles the county line. There is no compelling reason to put this burden on our law enforcement officials.”

The change would also impact Nash County's pocketbook.

“A secondary, but very important reason to keep the district from splitting is the additional costs such a move will impose on the counties,” Edwards said. “It is too early to say exactly what the monetary costs will be, but additional offices and facilities will likely be needed if Nash County citizens cannot use the Judicial Center in Rocky Mount. Who knows if additional employees will need to be added to our guardian ad litem program that deals with juveniles and their families if the program can no longer operate in the three counties as one program as it does today.”

The cost would be too much for Nash County to bear, according to a local attorney who asked not to be publicly identified.

“We're not talking about thousands of dollars or hundreds of thousands of dollars, we're talking about millions and millions of dollars,” the attorney said.

Everyone from Nash, Edgecombe and Wilson counties who will be impacted by a change in the judicial district maps is against it, Edwards said.

“Hopefully, the unified opposition to any such change will ring loud and clear to the legislators in the General Assembly as they work on the maps,” Edwards said.

State lawmakers are meeting this week in special session, continuing the debate over attempted legislative control of the judiciary. One of the proposals, HB717, was passed by the House last year and awaits Senate approval. The bill calls for redrawing judicial maps similar to legislative maps recently struck down by federal judges as unconstitutional. The proposed judicial lines would pack half of all black judges into a district with another incumbent, forcing them to run against each other or step down. The proposal saw majority disapproval from voters with 52 percent including a 49 percent plurality of independents opposing that legislation, according to recent polling by Progress NC.

“Given these poll results, it makes sense that lawmakers are afraid to release the public comments on their plan to rig the court system for political gain,” said Gerrick Brenner, executive director of Progress NC. “North Carolina voters have made it clear that these partisan attacks on judicial independence won’t be tolerated, but lawmakers have made it equally clear that they couldn’t care less what average voters have to say.”

Other legislative maneuvers include canceling primary elections for judges, cutting judicial terms to two years and eliminating judicial elections altogether, making judges political appointees.

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