Meck Co District Court judges speak out against Senate Bill 306

Updated: Mar. 27, 2017 at 5:16 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - It's not often you hear judges take a public stand against a bill making its way through the General Assembly. Monday morning – before court started – district court judges in Mecklenburg County held a news conference to speak out against Senate Bill 306.

The bill, if passed, would change the way district court judges are elected.

Currently, the judges have county-wide elections. But the bill would subdivide the county into districts and have judges run in the judges where they live.

"This would essentially take away the right of citizens like me in Mecklenburg County to vote for 2/3rd of the judges who sit in this county," said Judge Regan Miller.

Judge Miller, who is the Chief District Court Judge, says the bill is not necessary, but one of the co-sponsors says he believes it will help voters.

"The situation we run into in the district court in Mecklenburg County is that they run a county-wide at-large and there's 21 district court judges. There's no possible way voters know all 21 judges," said Senator Jeff Tarte who co-sponsored the S306. "I'm guessing you and I and most people can't name two or three district court judges and I'm in the middle of the process. I know I can't name all."

Tarte continued, "There's fewer judges you have to know and hopefully you'll have to do your homework and get to know those candidates," rather than just vote republican, democrat, and unaffiliated.

Senator Tarte says the bill would create districts that mirror how judges in superior court are elected.

"By subdividing it, we take it down - smaller populations which actually will make it easier for the judges. It will be more cost effective for them. The smaller population-based  - they'll be closer to their constituency because they have to live in their district so more likely they're going to be your neighbor and you're going to know them," the senator said.

Some legal experts believe the bill is a way to get more republicans elected to the bench in Mecklenburg County, which has a large population of democrats.

"The easy thing to answer there is, just look at the composition of the three subdivided districts that are superior court – they're all heavily democratic demographics," Tarte said. "If all the democrats go vote and they're going to end up electing all the judges so this won't actually be able to influence that."

District Court judges say the bill could lead to an imbalance on the district court bench.

"Over the past 15 years county-wide, non-partisan elections have produced a district court bench in Mecklenburg County that is evenly split between male and female judges, white and black judges. And there is even diversity in respect to geography. Now, this is a model for diversity that we as a county should be proud of," Judge Miller said. "With respect to party diversity, judges who are registered as republicans in this county have demonstrated that they can win election and re-election to their seats when voters are simply allowed to concentrate on the levels of their intelligence, education, experience, integrity, compassion and reverence for the rule of law."

Judge Miller said the current bill "will do little to improve the geographical diversity of the bench and will only prevent more judges from moving closer to their place of work." He said currently six district court judges live in each of two districts, and eight live in one district.

Judges say they're concerned the legislature is infringing on judicial independence.

"I have been fortunate to serve on this bench for almost 19 years and have had the experience under partisan and non-partisan elections, and I will tell you from personal experience both as a judge but as a community member that it makes a difference," Judge Rickye McKoy-Mitchell said. "Having these non-partisan elections give people who come to our district court - the people's court – the opportunity to be empowered."

Judge McKoy-Mitchell says she thinks voters should be able to have to say in all district court elections.

"Especially at a time when people feel they're coming into a court at their most vulnerable stage and for them to walk in and say this person who I otherwise would be able to hold accountable because I have a vote, I have a voice – can't say that," Judge McKoy-Mitchell added. "And I cannot imagine this community, this state, or even our country – not wanting to make sure people are empowered."

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