Democracy is Hard and Messy Work

Nelda Holder Photo: Tim Barnwell

Nelda Holder Photo: Tim Barnwell

Legislative News by Nelda Holder –

“Some voters [who are] worried about a federal voter-fraud commission collecting information on them want to cancel their registration.” ~ News & Observer, July 8, 2017

This quote from North Carolina’s leading daily newspaper is symptomatic of a grievously battered electorate and electoral process. As a reaction to the planned collection of voter information in the 50 states by the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, North Carolina was one of about 20 states that ultimately decided to send only publicly available data. Some states decided to send no data at all.

But for some of the public, the commission’s request seems to have landed inside NC’s confusing and destructive cyclone of voting legislation that has been ruled unconstitutional by the higher courts of the land; redistricting that has been ruled unconstitutional but which the current Legislature has delayed rectifying; a law designed to eliminate the current State Board of Elections and create a new State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement that would usurp traditional gubernatorial authority, and which is currently being challenged by the governor in the NC Supreme Court.

It is easy enough to see that such a beleaguered electoral process could seriously hamper the act of voting in this state and compromise the fundamental right of our democracy.

And it is questionable how much of this will be resolved by the time currently scheduled local elections take place here in Buncombe County, which comprises a primary for Asheville City Council—and other townships if needed—on October 10 (stay tuned for potential date changes!) and general elections in all municipalities on November 7.

Meanwhile, the U.S. District Court is deciding the fate of special elections that will reflect newly redrawn districts inside the state—when they appear. A court order should soon dictate both the timing for redrawing those districts and establish the time frame for new congressional as well as legislative elections in the affected districts. The successful challengers to the 2011 redistricting are calling for a special election this fall, saying that five years is long enough for citizens to suffer under unconstitutional maps. The legislature has asked the court to delay the replacement election until 2018—four full election cycles after the gerrymandered districts were created.

It’s gnarly. Hang on to your voter registration, and don’t let them wear you down! Or if you are currently not registered, get yourself to the Buncombe County Election Services at 77 McDowell Street, or download a registration form through their website at buncombecounty.org. (For further information, call them at 828-250-4209.)

So long, but just for a while

After wrangling a budget deal between the House and Senate, the NC General Assembly waited long enough for Gov. Roy Cooper to veto the deal, then voted to override the veto and go home. But just for a little while.

Normally, the state’s “part-time” legislature closes its long session (the first year of the biennium) once the requisite budgeting job, due by July 1, is accomplished. The “citizen legislature” goes home to ostensibly pick up their working lives there until the second session of the biennial body convenes the following year. Not true in 2017.

The General Assembly plans to gather in the Statehouse at least two more times before this year is over: on August 3 to focus on mainly on dealing with any gubernatorial vetoes in the meantime, but also to potentially consider any bills that were viable when they left; and September 6, when they left the door open for appointments, constitutional amendments, and veto overrides. In adjourning temporarily, they set a deadline of November 15 for drawing the new legislative maps.

Pressing for judicial change

Outside the legislative halls, the status of the state’s judiciary was the topic of an address in Asheville by NC Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin. He spoke on June 24 at the NC Bar Association’s annual meeting, reviewing the “State of the Judiciary”—something that reaches all of us from various directions. It is also a matter that has become increasingly important in the legislative realm itself—both in terms of the effects of legislation specific to the judiciary, and the constitutionality of legislation that is being tested repeatedly in our courts.

Martin highlighted the final report of the multidisciplinary NC Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice, recommending specific improvements for the state’s courts and their administration of justice. The commission was appointed after Martin became chief justice in 2015 and completed its work in March.

Martin, noting that the state is now the ninth most populous in the country with accordingly increased judiciary demands, boiled down the core of the report by citing three goals of the judiciary: fairness, access to justice, and uniform treatment.

“When we speak of the rule of law,” he said, “we mean adhering to these three values, in order to protect and preserve justice for all.” That, he added, means a court system open to all, that “secures our rights and applies the law equally and fairly, and that treats everyone with equal dignity.”

Work has begun on implementing the recommendations in the report, Martin reported, including a redesign of the NC Courts website to improve accessibility and user support; a civics education initiative and speakers bureau to promote the “tools of citizenship”; the establishment of a Pro Bono Honor Society to recognize lawyers providing at least 50 hours of pro bono service each year; a program (already implemented) to better protect domestic violence victims that includes the ability to file protective orders and hold court hearings online; the formation of a Courthouse and Cyber Security Task Force; and an initiative to fight against drug abuse and opioid addiction.

Also recommended was an end to the status North Carolina holds as the only state in the country with a juvenile age of 16. Lawmakers did not pass HB 280 this session, which addressed this issue, but they did add language to the budget bill that will mean 16- and 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors and some felonies will no longer be charged as adults, starting in December 2019.

Martin’s most forceful judiciary point had to do with the need he perceives to let the people of North Carolina decide, through a constitutional amendment vote, whether to change how judges are selected. Merit selection of judges, which he has worked towards for a long time, is a “good government” issue, Martin declared, and “not a political one.”

“I continue to believe that the judiciary should be as free as possible from the normal political considerations that are a natural part of the executive and legislative branches of government,” the chief justice declared. The merit selection proposal would incorporate:

  • A panel to evaluate judicial candidates in “an objective and non-ideological way” and rate them as “qualified” or “not qualified,” with panel members appointed by both the governor and the legislature.
  • Appointment of qualified judges by “an appropriate governmental authority with accountability to the people.”
  • Retention elections at periodic intervals to “ensure that the people of North Carolina continue to have a role in this process.”

“This is a critical time for the bench, for the bar, and for our society as a whole,” Martin observed. Calling attorneys “the guardians of the law,” Martin concluded his remarks by noting that “now is the time to prepare our courts for the rest of the twenty-first century.”

Asheville’s Jackie Grant goes to the head of the class

Also taking place at the NCBA’s July gathering, Buncombe County native Jacqueline Grant, partner and litigator with Roberts & Stevens in Asheville, was introduced as president-elect of the statewide association. She was escorted to the stage by a large contingent of past presidents, to warm and enthusiastic applause from her NCBA peers. A graduate of A.C. Reynolds High School in Erwin, Grant earned her law degree from the University of North Carolina School of Law in 1995.

In addition to statewide work on behalf of the NCBA Board of Directors and various legal services committees, Grant has served locally on the boards of the YWCA, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of WNC, and the city’s Sustainable Economic Development Task Force.

She will be the first African American female to serve as president of the 28th Judicial Bar Association (encompassing Buncombe County), and the second African American female (and third African American overall) to serve as NCBA president, according to the NCBA’s press release. She will act as president-elect for the 2017-18 term, and will be installed as the 124th president in June, 2018.

 


Nelda Holder is the author of The Thirteenth Juror – Ferguson: A Personal Look at the Grand Jury Transcripts. Read Holder’s blog, www.politicallypurplenc.com

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