Maps, mayhem and merriment: Where things stand with North Carolina redistricting

By: - December 15, 2017 5:00 am

If the General Assembly were an army, their troops would be spread too thin.

Lawmakers made a tactical decision this year to redraw judicial district boundaries. On another battle front, they’re trying to correct several previous mapmaking mistakes: Unconstitutional legislative and congressional redistricting, the latter of which they’re still disputing in court.

Despite their own strategic stonewalling, lawmakers asked a federal court this week to expedite a hearing on a special master’s proposed plan for legislative redistricting. Lawmakers requested a Dec. 22 hearing, which is 10 days earlier than the scheduled date and three days before Christmas.

They justified the rush to help the state “seek meaningful Supreme Court review and take additional legislative action if necessary.”

However, the three-judge panel – President Barack Obama nominees U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Eagles and 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge James Wynn, as well as U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder, who was appointed by President George W. Bush – denied the request within a day.

The judges’ order was direct, saying lawmakers were seeking to “impose their own expedited schedule on the Court, the Special Master, and other parties at virtually the last moment.”

The hearing, as scheduled, is Jan. 5 in federal court in Greensboro. The legislature, which has been holding committee meetings and working behind the scenes to discuss various redistricting schemes, will reconvene for a special session Jan. 10. They are expected to take up state constitutional amendments during the session.

Until then, here is an update on all things map:

North Carolina v. Covington:

This is the racial gerrymandering case which the legislature asked the U.S. District Court to expedite.

Earlier this year, lawmakers redrew districts to correct racial gerrymanders. However, the three-judge panel enlisted a special master to help determine whether constitutional violations still existed. The special master, Stanford Law Professor Nathaniel Persily determined the maps still ran afoul of the constitution.

Persily filed a preliminary report in November and gave both lawmakers and the plaintiffs – voters who allege discrimination should the maps not change – a chance to respond and to suggest ways to improve the districts. Meanwhile, Persily redrew Senate districts in Cumberland, Hoke and Guilford counties and House districts in Sampson, Wayne, Mecklenburg, Guilford and Wake counties.

The plaintiffs responded that Persily’s maps remedy the racial gerrymanders and other constitutional flaws perpetrated in the redrawn maps. They proposed some adjustments to keep incumbents from being double-bunked – or placed in the same districts in an election.

Legislative defendants offered no solutions. Instead, they again objected to the special master and his maps.

Persily filed his final proposal Dec. 1. He states in the 69-page report that all of the districts he drew comply with the law and he fully explains why. He also provides detailed descriptions of each district in his recommended plan.

Senate District 27 is the only one in the plan that pairs incumbents – Guilford County senators Gladys Robinson, a Democrat, and Trudy Wade, a Republican. Still, in his report, Persily offered a way to separate them should the judges choose to do so.

The plaintiffs in the case filed a brief agreeing and encouraged the court to order the plan into effect for the 2018 elections.

Legislative defendants have continued to object to the plan. They allege the court never identified a violation for the special master to remedy.

“Drawing remedial maps in the absence of an adjudicated or admitted problem with the existing maps is a recipe for precisely the kind of constitutional disaster that [a previous court ruling] is supposed to prevent,” a court document states.

Lawmakers accuse Persily of single-mindedly focusing on race and being politically motivated to un-pair incumbents in his final plan.

In public and in court documents, several lawmakers have stated that they intend to appeal the special master appointment and his subsequent maps to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Jan. 5, Persily is expected to testify first. Then each party have an hour to present their arguments. Persily will also have a chance to respond to those arguments.

The hearing will be open to the public. Electronics are not permitted in the courtroom and members of the public who attend the hearing will be required to show courthouse officials their photo identification.

Judicial redistricting

Senate lawmakers introduced new district maps for judges and prosecutors at a committee meeting Wednesday, although without much explanation.

Sen. Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg), a co-chair of the Senate Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting, said the maps correct constitutional concerns in the House’s proposed plan. That plan, House Bill 717, already passed in that chamber.

Districts were redrawn in the following counties: Buncombe, Cumberland, Durham, Guilford, Forsyth, Mecklenburg and Wake.

Rep. Justin Burr (R-Montgomery, Stanly) gave his blessing to the Senate maps, saying he knew about their redrawing. He described the changes as minor.

The immediate impact of the redrawing was unclear. Democrats left the meeting after protesting GOP lawmakers’ refusal to allow Gov. Roy Cooper’s designee, retired Judge Don Stephens, a chance to speak to the committee. Read more about the conflict here.

Congressional redistricting

A federal three-judge panel is still reviewing two partisan gerrymandering cases that went to trial together in October.

Both cases involve the 2016 congressional maps that led to a lopsided 10-3 Republican representation from North Carolina in U.S. Congress – an extreme statistical outlier, according to expert testimony.

Post-trial briefs in that case, which are expected to be the last documents needed, were filed in early November. It’s unknown when the court will announce its decision.

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