Ninety miles down-river from Fayetteville, at the Cape Fear’s exit into the Atlantic, sits Bald Head Island. The island houses a maritime forest that forms a canopy of cedar, native palmettos and massive live oaks with Spanish moss. If you haven’t visited Bald Head and have any appreciation for our coast, do so, if even for a day. It’s a timeless place.
If you spend any time in the thick of the island, you’ll spot several long mounds of earth and trenches that are out of place among the flat forest-bed. They make up what was once Fort Holmes, a Confederate battery constructed to keep the inlet free for blockade runners. Like its better-known cousin Fort Fisher, Fort Holmes fell and was abandoned. Today, its entrenchments are covered in trees and brush, but they still abide a century-and-a-half later, scarring the natural landscape. You don’t even need a map to find them.
When my father is not seeking refuge on Bald Head, he’s spending time in the halls of our legislative building, where the majority party recently passed a bill to carve up Cumberland County’s judicial districts along racial lines. In short, the bill creates a “city” district in central and northwest Cumberland County, with a high minority and democratic vote. Surrounding it is a Republicanleaning, majority-white district comprised of the wealthiest neighborhoods of central Fayetteville and the surrounding county. District and Superior Court judges are distributed among the two districts.
In the past several District Court elections, which are countywide, many in the Republican Party have failed to win, particularly against African-American candidates.
No Republican judges sit on our Superior Court bench. The aim of the bill’s supporters is to change all this, using the built-in partisan advantage of one of the new districts. The proponents will succeed in this attempt in the same way they have succeeded in obtaining a veto-proof majority in the legislature by packing AfricanAmerican citizens into a district to dilute their overall voting power. It’s insidious, but it’s effective.
As we have come to know with gerrymandered legislative districts, it’s likely that the only election that will matter in these new judicial districts will be the partisan primary. Gerrymandering forces even the most moderate candidate to ideological extremes to win the hearts of their particular “blue” or “red” district, after which they often run unopposed in a general election, unaccountable to the needs and desires of the public at large. It’s a bad blueprint for democracy, but it’s a horrible way to elect qualified individuals to govern one of the last places of public refuge in our society, the courtroom.
For Cumberland County, this bill means more division in our courthouse. Judge shopping will certainly occur as lawyers and litigants jockey to have their cases heard by a judge of their race or party. This is to be feared, and the reason is simple: equal protection under law is threatened when partisanship and race are added to the scales of justice.
Long after we come to our senses in this state and take race and party out of our judicial elections, the harmful effects of this bill will endure. They will become entrenched, as racial lines always have and always will. You won’t even need a map to find them.