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RALEIGH (AP) — The North Carolina legislature revived public discussions Friday over redrawing judicial election districts and how judges are chosen, but it's unclear if the renewed conversation means legislation is likely to get approved during next month's annual session.
A House-Senate study committee on the judiciary met for the first time in three months and reviewed updated election boundary proposals for Superior Court and District Court seats released weeks ago. The panel also discussed legislation approved last year by the House that would shift certain judicial appointments from the governor to the General Assembly.
The committee adjourned with no recommendations and no additional meetings before the session begins May 16. A key legislator said that doesn't mean the issues are dead during the session, likely to end by early summer.
"My opinion is that we ought to pass some of the things in some form that have been proposed," said Sen. Warren Daniel, a Burke County Republican and committee co-chairman.
House and Senate Republicans in charge of the legislature haven't been able to agree on a dramatic change and propose doing away with head-to-head judicial elections used for the past 150 years - let alone what to replace them with. Even if traditional elections are kept, GOP leaders aren't yet unified on how far they want to alter the judicial election boundaries.
The House last October also approved a statewide judicial remap of the trial-court judgeships and of district attorneys. Senate Republicans agree some districts in urban counties should be made more equal in population or they could face constitutional litigation.
Rep. Justin Burr, a Stanly County Republican leading the charge on the first statewide remap since the 1960s, said colleagues shouldn't wait any longer.
"This has been kicked down the road long enough," Burr said.
A lack of unanimity among Republicans gives some leverage for Gov. Roy Cooper his fellow Democrats in the legislature. He could veto judicial redistricting or appointments bills discussed Friday, and Democratic opposition to any amendment to the state constitution seeking to do away with head-to-head judicial elections likely would doom it.
Democrats and their allied advocacy groups argue the proposals are simply political power plays by GOP leaders seeking to control the judiciary following recent court decisions against them. The General Assembly approved laws last year making trial court races officially partisan elections and reducing the number of Court of Appeals seats from 15 to 12.
One of the judicial appointment bills debated Friday would transfer from the governor to the General Assembly the authority to fill District Court vacancies. The other would let legislators appoint the handful of special trial court judges in the state that handle complex or business-oriented cases. Currently these special judges are nominated by the governor and subject to legislative confirmation.
"This just seems just baldly political to me," Sen. Terry Van Duyn, a Buncombe County Democrat, said of the proposals.
Burr said the District Court appointment proposals would bring more transparency to the selection process. The person filling the vacancy generally serves until the next election and can seek a full four-year term.
Currently, the governor fills the vacancy and doesn't have to appoint someone from the list of recommended lawyers that area attorneys provide. Burr said giving the job to the legislature would promote public input, transparency and broader accountability.
But Democrats and even at least one Republican questioned the wisdom of the General Assembly taking on the responsibility and whether appointment decisions would be made by the House speaker, Senate leader and their top lieutenants.
"I would just loathe to get the General Assembly involved in another area that I'm not sure we know that much about," said GOP Rep. John Blust of Guilford County, adding at the Legislative Building, "a few people hold most of the cards."