Wake Dems Legislative Update: Courts and class size chaos

WAKE DEMS WEEKLY UPDATE, Vol. 1, No. 18

October 24, 2017
 

Much of our focus has been on the municipal races in the last few months, but the GOP is still up to no good down at the General Assembly, so it’s time to catch you up. This will be a long one, but likely the final regular update until next year. The General Assembly adjourned last Tuesday until January 10th. Barring any unforeseen emergency sessions, the legislative building will be pretty quiet for the rest of the year. We will be sure to keep you updated if that changes or if there are any developments on redistricting.

As we head into the crucial 2018 election season, we will begin to focus on the stakes in that election, our Democratic legislators who are running to continue fighting for us, and the Republican legislators who we must work to defeat.

OUR COURTS ARE UNDER ATTACK

The courts have overturned law after law passed by the unconstitutionally constituted Republican supermajority. But instead of changing their tune, the GOP’s response has been to change the courts.

Last Tuesday, they took two actions that could devastate the application of justice in our state and deliberately hurt Democrats’ chances of winning judicial elections:

  • They overrode Gov. Cooper’s veto of a bill that, among other things,cancels next year’s judicial primaries. That means that every candidate who files for a judgeship will appear on the November ballot. You may remember the crazy 19-candidate Court of Appeals race in 2014. Next year, we’ll have races like that across the state. Since Democrats are fired up and running for office like never before, you can expect the Democratic vote will be split in more races than the Republican vote will, particularly in urban counties like Wake. That means a Republican judge could win with around 20% of the vote in some of these races, even if the combined vote for the Democratic candidates exceeds the combined GOP vote.

  • Mere hours after the veto override, Republicans filed a proposed constitutional amendment which, if passed by 60% of both chambers and by a majority of voters in the May primary, wouldprematurely end the term of every single judge in the state in December 2018 and put all judges statewide on the ballot in November. Between District and Superior Courts, the Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court, there are 403 elected judges in North Carolina. All of them hold office for eight years, except District Court judges, who serve for four. So if you got elected just last year for a four- or eight-year term? Sorry, you have to go on the ballot in a multicandidate melee next year, and then run every two years thereafter. As Gov. Cooper said in his response, “Republican legislative leaders have revealed that they aren’t interested in picking the best judges but instead in picking the judges who will agree with them.”

Not only would these changes make elections chaotic and ballots long, but they would seriously undermine the independence of our courts. Judges would have to constantly campaign, just as legislators do, and raise money from attorneys who appear before them. There would also be a perpetual threat of mass turnover. Judges are elected to longer terms than legislators because we need experienced judges removed from the rough and tumble of campaign politics. Republicans see no value in this. Instead, they want to bring the judicial branch entirely under their control, not only to stop them from blocking their laws, but also to stop them from blocking their gerrymandered districts in 2021 and beyond.

When the New York Times writes about our state, it’s usually not good. Even former Republican Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr is crying foul.

These changes come on top of the judicial gerrymanders, which passed the House a few weeks ago and may be taken up by the Senate when the legislature returns in January. Or the Senate may instead push a form of “merit” judicial selection to replace elections, which many are rightly calling legislative selection, another attempt to eliminate the checks and balances inherent to a healthy, functioning government.

CLASS SIZE CHAOS

Legislators have been getting a lot of calls and emails from parents, particularly in Wake County, who are upset about what has been dubbed#ClassSizeChaos—the General Assembly’s hasty unfunded mandate reducing the maximum number of students allowed in kindergarten through third-grade classes. Art and music teachers are being let go or losing their classrooms in favor of mobile carts. Students are being transferred to schools with more capacity. Classrooms are now hosting two classes of students instead of one.

Senate Republicans put a stop to any attempt to deal with this issue in thebudget technical corrections bill which passed both chambers on October 5th. With no more votes until January, time is running out to fix this problem.

PROTECTING LGBTQ RIGHTS

We’ll close on a few good notes. Last week, Gov. Cooper signed an executive order protecting LGBTQ workers from discrimination by any entities under the executive branch’s control. That includes the actual departments and even private businesses who contract with the government. The order also allows transgender individuals to use bathrooms which correspond to their gender identity in facilities run by executive agencies.

In his Medium post explaining the move, the governor said: “Some may ask, how much of a difference can this executive order make? Consider this: North Carolina executive agencies employ 55,000 people and contract with more than 3,000 vendors with thousands of employees. This executive order could impact up to $1.5 billion worth of executive agency contracts.”

Of course, Republicans have predictably trashed the E.O. If they attempt to overrule the governor through legislation, they will put at risk not only civil rights, but also our ability to attract businesses like Amazon to our state. Hopefully we won’t have to live through another HB2 mess.

REDISTRICTING

We may get another legislative map for use in 2018, but this time one drawn by the courts. Fair maps would give us our best chance to stop all this GOP insanity.

At the October 12th federal court hearing called to hear arguments on the General Assembly’s latest gerrymander, the court ordered the two sides to agree on three names to serve as a potential “special master,” a neutral party who would draw new maps on the court’s behalf. That does not necessarily mean the court will ultimately appoint a special master. It means they are prepared to do so if they decide the legislature’s map does not pass constitutional muster. Then last Wednesday, the court announced that the two sides could not, in fact, agree on a list of candidates by the deadline, so if a special master is appointed, the court will choose him or her.

There is no word when the court will release its decision in the case, but it may not be until December. Stay tuned.