GOP-Led North Carolina Legislature Attacks Democracy, Independent Judiciary

If there was ever a more perfect example of the fallacy in the thinking that “things have changed dramatically” expressed by John Roberts and his conservative colleagues on the Supreme Court, so much so that the Voting Rights Act (VRA) enforcement measures could be eliminated, it is exemplified by the state of North Carolina.

Before the Shelby County v. Holder decision in June, 2013, which struck down Section IV of the VRA that designated certain counties in the country to be pre-cleared for any changes in their voting laws, it was rare to see any significant changes in voting procedures in the state beyond aggressive gerrymandering. After all, 40 counties in the state were covered under Section IV. But after the 2010 election and in anticipation of the Shelby decision, the GOP-led legislature implemented what was eventually ruled to be an illegal racial gerrymander in its redrawing of both the Congressional and state election districts. Those rulings, however, only occurred this year, meaning that North Carolina’s minority voters have been disenfranchised for most of this decade.

In addition, within months of the Shelby decision, North Carolina adopted new legislation that required photo ID and other documents in order to simply register to vote. Those restrictions were also found to be unconstitutional this year, with the Supreme Court noting that the restrictions targeted African-Americans “with almost surgical precision.”

But the Shelby decision also seemed to open the barn door for the North Carolina legislature to run roughshod over the executive and judicial branches in the state, especially after Democrat Roy Cooper actually managed to win the gubernatorial election and the State Supreme Court flipped to being controlled by Democrats in 2016. In the wake of that election, the legislature immediately went to work to neuter the Supreme Court and strip Cooper of much of his power.

The Charlotte Observer detailed those changes, writing, “Lawmakers want to hobble the incoming Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, before he takes office Jan. 1 by making his Cabinet appointments subject to approval by the state Senate and cutting his ability to appoint members to UNC schools’ boards of trustees. One proposal in the mix would equally divide election boards between the two major political parties, ending control by the governor’s party…One of the most far-reaching of the bills filed in the new session Wednesday night was a Senate proposal to merge the State Board of Elections with the State Ethics Commission, among other provisions. The independent, quasi-judicial regulatory agency would have the authority to issue subpoenas and compel witnesses to testify. It would be run by an executive director and overseen by an eight-member board, evenly divided along party lines.”

But probably the most insidious change the legislature wanted to make was essentially a full out attack on the judiciary. One bill proposed to “shift power from the N.C. Supreme Court that will be controlled by Democrats to the 15-member state Court of Appeals that will have a Republican majority.” The desire to neuter the Supreme Court increased when the Court ruled that the legislature could not strip the power of overseeing elections from the governor. In addition, the GOP legislature ended up reducing the size of the Court of Appeals simply to prevent the governor from appointing replacements for open seats.

Now, according to the NY Times, “Judges in state courts as of this year must identify their party affiliation on ballots, making North Carolina the first state in nearly a century to adopt partisan court elections…And this month, lawmakers drew new boundaries for judicial districts statewide, which critics say are meant to increase the number of Republican judges on district and superior courts and would force many African-Americans on the bench into runoffs against other incumbents.” And on Monday, the legislature overrode the governors veto of a bill that eliminated judicial primaries.

The attack on African-Americans judges is especially disconcerting in light of the illegal racial gerrymanders and voting restrictions the state has already engaged in. When new districts for state judicial elections were redrawn this year, Democrats claimed that 65% of the black judges would end up in districts where their opponent would be another African-American judge.

But not even this is enough to satisfy some of the Republican radicals in the legislature. In another brazen attempt to reclaim a majority on the State Supreme Court which is currently set to run until 2022, barring retirements, the legislature is also considering reducing judges’ terms to just two years. In a more radical move, the GOP leader of the State Senate wants to replace judicial elections entirely and allow the General Assembly to simply appoint judges. That way Republicans could ignore those pesky elections and hand-pick the judges they want.

As Governor Cooper said, “Instead of changing the way they write their laws, they want to change the judges”. Another state official noted, “This legislature doesn’t like the courts, doesn’t like the judges on the court. It wants to change who they are, and they don’t seem to care how they go about it.”

North Carolina has unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered their elections for most of this decade. Voter suppression unconstitutionally targeted minority voters with an almost laser-like focus. Now the legislature is proposing to eliminate a significant proportion of the African-American judges in the state. But, according to John Roberts, “things have changed dramatically”. It sure doesn’t look that way. Rather, it’s looking more and more like the way things were before the VRA was passed.

The Republican legislature in North Carolina is attacking the core of our democracy as well as our Constitution. The attack on our democracy is via a return to essentially Jim Crow laws. The attack on our Constitution is the attempt to control the judiciary and attack the separation of powers. In both cases, however, the GOP controlled legislature in North Carolina is perhaps only a slightly more extreme version of the national Republican party, particularly reflected in its leader, Donald Trump.

Originally published at tidalsoundings.blogspot.com on October 21, 2017.