WINTON – Hertford County leaders are joining with local court officials in opposition to proposed legislation by the state’s General Assembly to expand Judicial District 6.
If North Carolina legislators have their way, it will mark the second time in the past four years that District 6 has faced a merger. This time around, a statewide judicial redistricting plan includes a measure that will add Warren and Vance counties to the current configuration – which now includes Bertie, Halifax, Hertford and Northampton counties.
“What is being proposed is a rather large district,” said Hertford County Manager Loria Williams during Monday night’s regularly scheduled meeting of the Board of Commissioners. “We believe it will have a negative impact on Hertford County and its citizens. It will have judges traveling a considerable distance to work the courts.”
Judge Brenda Branch, Chief District 6 Court Judge, said she was concerned about another loss of judges if the merger was approved.
“This district took the first-ever cut (in the number of judges) in the state four years ago, losing two of our judges,” she recalled. “And what they are now proposing adds two more counties to the district; we’re looking at a large district where it will take two hours to drive from Windsor (Bertie County) to Henderson (Vance County).”
Even with the current configuration, Judge Branch admitted that Hertford County is already at a disadvantage, which she fears will be further compounded should the new redistricting plan become a reality.
“If they (General Assembly) approves this plan, then they need to at least give us back what they took four years ago,” she stressed, citing the 2014 loss of two District 6 judges – Rob Lewis II and Tom Jones Jr., both of Hertford County. “We do not have enough judges now (four) to work the four counties, and of those four none are from Hertford County.”
As the Chief District Court Judge, Branch says she struggles just to keep up with the demanding schedule.
“I’m on the bench (overseeing court sessions) just as much as the other three judges and still have to implement programs to help our citizens,” she noted.
Additionally, the fact of not having a judge living in Hertford County places law enforcement at risk, Branch said.
“Your Sheriff (Dexter Hayes) has to travel to Northampton County to meet a judge to sign a search warrant signed or meet with them to sign the paperwork of a prisoner transfer,” Branch observed. “Then, if the weather is bad, like all the snow we had last month, there are times when I can’t get a judge to conduct court here in Winton.
“Expanding the district will make that even harder,” she added. “Your citizens deserve to have at least one judge living here or in Bertie County.”
Judge Branch admitted that neither of the two newest counties proposed to join the district support the merger.
“Vance and Warren are fighting, they don’t want to join us, and we don’t want to join them; we’re all fighting this,” she said.
She added that the proposal will be considered once the General Assembly reconvenes in Raleigh in May. The measure is currently under study by the Committee on Rules and Operations of the NC Senate.
Sheriff Hayes also commented on the redistricting proposal.
“The way it is now, we have one judge assigned to our count on one day, they have to serve over domestic hearings and juvenile hearings, and then move over to district court,” he said. “We’ll have a district courtroom of people waiting, most arriving at 9 a.m., before the judge can transition over to district court. They have a lot on them in a single day. Sometimes it’s 11 o’clock before we can open district court.”
“That’s not fair to your citizens who have been sitting and waiting all morning,” chimed in Judge Branch. “It would be better to have two judges….one taking care of domestic and civil matters and the other taking care of criminal matters. Then everyone can get in and out of court in a timely manner.”
On a motion from Commissioner Bill Mitchell, the board approved a resolution in opposition of the proposed judicial merger involving District 6.
That resolution, approved by the Hertford County Commissioners by a 5-0 vote, reads in part:
“The proposal that is in joint committee that adds Vance and Warren counties to our current four counties would be a disaster for the District Attorney’s office. It would be impossible for one district attorney’s office to prosecute cases from a 3,000 square mile district. There is a backlog of cases already in District 6. Adding two more counties will cause the jails to be overcrowded as defendants wait for their cases to be called, and victims and their families who are already under stress have the additional frustration of waiting even longer for prosecution.”
Commissioners in Bertie, Northampton and Halifax counties have approved similar resolutions opposing the merger.