Reality Check: Buncombe County judges speak up about judicial redistricting

A bill that passed the house splits Buncombe County into two judicial districts. (Photo credit: North Carolina General Assembly)

State legislators will go back into session in three weeks, and changes to the judicial system could be up for discussion. The house passed a bill in October that redistricts the state's judiciary. The bill now sits in the senate, and a committee discussed it on Dec. 13.

Currently, Buncombe County has one district attorney, one sheriff, one courthouse, and one judicial district. House Bill 717 changes that by creating two judicial electoral districts for Buncombe County.

"It feels like there's an assault on the judicial branch right now," Buncombe County District Judge Susan Dotson-Smith said.

Dotson-Smith brought her concerns to Raleigh, where she spoke earlier in the fall.

"There's not a logical reason for me to believe that splitting Buncombe County has anything to do with the efficiency, or fair administration of justice," Dotson-Smith said.

The house bill passed along party lines. Henderson County Representative Chuck McGrady, who voted for it, described the bill as still being early in the legislative process.

"What this is about is trying to catch up on redistricting that probably should have occurred 10, 20, 30 years ago," Rep. McGrady said.

The house bill expands the judicial division, stretching it to include Mecklenburg County. Haywood and Jackson counties currently have their own Superior Court District. The bill merges them with the westernmost WNC counties. Another change is splitting Buncombe County. You can see the current and proposed Superior Court maps here:

"I'm concerned that by splitting the district to have two election districts, you run the risk of creating political agendas in our local judiciary, and I don't think that's the right direction to go," Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams said.

Two electoral districts would mean residents could appear before judges they had no opportunity to vote for. Representative Justin Burr, from Albemarle, is the primary sponsor of the house bill. Burr told News 13 the intent in splitting up Buncombe County is to make it similar to the other larger North Carolina counties, which currently have multiple districts.

"The judges are elected to apply the law uniformly throughout the county. It's one judicial district. It should remain one election district. That's what's consistent," Williams said.

The proposed superior court district places Buncombe County's two superior court judges in the same district. Superior Court Judge Marvin Pope believes that was intentional.

"Absolutely. As I showed you earlier, the map for the redistricting is not drawn according to a major highway, or a major sector. It's drawn exactly to put Judge Thornburg and myself in the same judicial district," Pope said.

"No sir, there's nothing intentional there," Rep. Burr said.

Burr said they tried to make the populations similar in the two districts. He said they did not intent to put two incumbent judges in the same district, which would force the two Democrats to run against each other.

"We did not use the incumbent's residency when we first drew the districts," Burr said.

Pope says he won't run against his younger colleague, which means he'd have to move to run for reelection. Looking at the shape of the proposed Buncombe County district, Pope says it's gerrymandering.

"Absolutely. That's the only way you can characterize it," Judge Pope said.

"I would hope that the judicial redistricting is in no way a gerrymander. I've heard some believe it is, but I haven't seen evidence of that," Rep. McGrady said.

A state senate committee recently unveiled a new map which splits Buncombe County into three judicial districts. Pope said this map puts him and Judge Thornburg in different districts. McGrady said he would have voted against the first draft of the redistricting bill and could still change his mind depending how the bill changes.

Meanwhile, judges find themselves in an uncomfortable position speaking about pending legislation.

"I'm confident you will have people talking and speaking out. I'm hopeful that they will be heard," Dotson-Smith said.

Earlier in the year, the legislature overrode a veto to create partisan judicial elections. The legislature also eliminated the 2018 judicial primary, which Democrats are now fighting in court to preserve.

McGrady said it's not a secret the house judicail redistricing bill is a first step towards moving to a different way of how judges take the bench. The senate committee discussed merit based appointments.


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