MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) - Just days before candidate filing opens, a panel of judges threw out Mecklenburg County court districts Wednesday, forcing candidates to once again run county-wide.
The Wake County judges threw out eight voting districts drawn by Republican lawmakers for the county’s 21 District Court judges. A dozen of those seats are up in 2020.
“Now, of course, it’s a scramble because all 12 seats will be countywide,” said Gerry Cohen, a former longtime legislative official.
Wednesday’s ruling comes days before the start of North Carolina’s candidate filing period on Monday that runs through Dec. 20.
The judges ruled in a suit challenging the judicial districts that took effect in the county for the 2018 elections.
In 2017, the General Assembly created eight districts to elect the county’s district court judges.
Supporters said by giving voters fewer people to vet, the change would lead to easier and more careful consideration of candidates.
But critics said the law, passed after lawmakers made judicial elections partisan again, was designed to elect more Republicans.
In 2018, two of the county’s Democratic judges - both African American - lost their seats.
Those two, Donald Cureton and Alicia Brooks, were among the plaintiffs in a suit to overturn the districts. Their lawyer, Bob Hunter of Greensboro, called them victims of “racial sorting” in one court document.
“The effect of the redistricting was to eliminate incumbent judges largely based on race,” he wrote. “This effect chills the impartiality of judges and the critical policy of judicial independence.”
Cureton and Brooks, he wrote, were put into a district that was 82% white.
DISTRICTS FOR JUDGES
In an affidavit filed this month, Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop — then the main N.C. Senate sponsor of the measure — gave the rationale for districts.
He said after drawing eight new districts for the county’s eight superior court judges, it seemed “illogical” that the higher court judges be elected by fewer people than the lower court judges, who at the time were elected at large.
The voting districts overlapped with the superior court districts, which each elected one judge. To accommodate 21 district judges, each of the eight districts has either two or three judges.
“The effect on voters in (districts) with only two candidates versus (districts) with three candidates dilutes the voting power of residents in the two-candidate (districts),” Hunter wrote.
Critics also said judges serve the entire county, no matter their district.
“Judges in our district court serve the entire county as a matter of sound policy,” Charlotte attorney John Wester told the Observer this month. He is a former president of the N.C. Bar and a registered Republican.
Making candidates run county-wide probably won’t help Republicans, Cohen said Wednesday.
“It probably wouldn’t be helpful to Republicans running countywide in what has been a heavily Democratic county for the last 12 years or so,” he said.