Judicial district consolidation opposed

Published 8:31 pm Friday, June 14, 2013

A push by two local lawmakers as well as area judicial officials is aimed at derailing an effort to combine Judicial Districts 6A and 6B.

Included within the state’s biennial budget, approved earlier this week by the NC House of Representatives, was a special provision that caught many off guard.

According to District 5 Representative Annie Mobley of Ahoskie, a surprise entry into the House version of the budget allowed judicial district changes to be entered into the “special provisions” portion of the budget. One special provision called for the consolidation of Judicial Districts 6A and 6B and Prosecutorial Districts 6A and 6B.

“That special provision will bring about the loss of two judges and a prosecutor for our area,” Rep. Mobley explained.

Mobley said the special provision was a surprise to many House members simply because there had previously been no bill introduced to attempt to make the changes sought in the provision.

If the special provision stands upon the budget returning to the NC Senate next week for final approval, that would mean only one District Attorney would be needed. Currently, veteran DA Valerie Asbell heads up District 6B (Bertie, Hertford and Northampton counties) while Melissa Pelfrey serves as the DA for 6A (Halifax County).

The possible move would also eliminate the seats of two 6B judges – Chief Judge Rob Lewis and Judge Tom Jones. Their seats are impacted due to the fact they are next in line – as are Asbell and Pelfrey – for reelection in 2014, the year in which the proposed consolidation would begin.

Four other current District Court Judges – Brenda G. Branch, Teresa R. Freeman and W. Turner Stephenson (all in District 6A) and Vershenia Ballance Moody (District 6B) – were elected last year. They would have to seek reelection in 2016 in the new four-county combined district.

Mobley said she was prepared to run a corrective amendment during an Appropriations Committee meeting on Tuesday, but was told by Republican members that they would assist her with the amendment if she would simply wait and run the amendment the next day on the House floor. Rep. Mobley agreed to do so and was appalled at an action taken by the Republican majority at that time.

“I thought my amendment would be subject to a vote by the entire House membership.” she said. “That was not the case. After some debate of the amendment, House leadership made a motion for the amendment to ‘lay upon the table,’ a motion that would effectively kill the amendment, if it passed a single House vote. It did pass that vote—along party lines.”

Mobley feels that an action of the Republican majority in the North Carolina House of Representatives puts citizens of Hertford, Bertie, Halifax and Northampton counties in the position of having insufficient representation in the judicial system.

“I feel great personal disappointment about the way things were handled by our Republican majority,” Mobley stated. “My feelings for the wonderful people of these four counties go even deeper. Because of this action on the House floor these people are losing access to the judicial system, access to judicial services and a full opportunity to have their needs met by the judiciary. They are the ones who will be harmed by this action, if it stands up.”

Mobley is joined in the effort to overturn the special provision by a colleague in the NC Senate, Angela Bryant of HalifaxCounty. Bryant said the move to combine 6A and 6B was done in order to create a new single district (20A) in StanleyCounty.

“This secret legislation is unfair and done to create a single district for one county to the detriment of four other counties,” Bryant stated. “This type of reconfiguration should be done after a study of the entire system and with the opportunity for input from all affected.”

Bryant said it was impossible for four judges to cover four counties, especially considering the size of Bertie and Halifax counties.

“This legislation is retrogressive; it decreases services and limits access to justice for victims, citizens and lawyers; and limits access between law enforcement and judges and the District Attorney,” Bryant noted. “Law enforcement officers and lawyers may have to travel up to two hours to meet with judges or district attorneys; the district attorney may have to travel up to two hours to view crime scenes; the broader district will lessens accountability to the citizens.”

“When I heard the news of a possible consolidation of Districts 6A and 6B, I was very concerned about the negative effects the possible consolidation would have on these four counties as a whole,” stated Asbell. “I agree with Senator Bryant’s concerns that this consolidation would decrease the services that our offices provide to our citizens.

“Over the past few years, my office has lost three positions, two Victim/Witness Legal Assistants and one Assistant District Attorney due to budget cuts,” Asbell continued.  “These losses were critical to my office and I, along with the other District Attorneys, fought aggressively to keep these positions, but lost them anyway.”

Asbell continued, “Eliminating two of our District Court Judges, Chief District Court Judge Rob Lewis and Judge Thomas L. Jones, would result in delays in court proceedings for victims of crime and also civil proceedings. It is my hope that the Senate will rectify this issue so that my office will be able to continue to seek justice for the victims of crime through the fair, equal, vigorous, and efficient enforcement of the criminal laws.”

Bryant said if this special provision clears the Senate, it still faces an uphill battle as it would require pre-clearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and may be challenged before the US Supreme Court.

Mobley also stressed that the fight is far from over.

“The House version of the budget is not a final product,” she said. “The House budget and the Senate version of the budget must be reconciled to produce a final product.”

As that reconciliation process takes place, Mobley said she  will be working with Senate members in an effort to make the judiciary corrections that are needed in Districts 6A and 6B.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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