August 2, 2017/Press

ICYMI: N.C. General Assembly, the Middle District has your number

Greensboro News & Record: N.C. General Assembly, the Middle District has your number
By Susan Ladd
August 3, 2017

North Carolina voters who have been denied fair representation since 2011 scored an important victory Monday when the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina ordered the General Assembly to redraw state legislative districts by Sept. 1 to correct racial gerrymandering.

Better yet, the ruling of this three-judge panel also blocked many of the avenues the GOP majority has used in previous court-ordered redistricting cases to prolong its illegal grip on the state legislature.

The state had requested a Nov. 17 deadline for producing new maps in order to get more public input, said Republican Rep. David Lewis, one of the architects of the original 2011 maps. Those maps were drawn by Republicans and pushed through both houses without a single Democratic vote.

The court wasn’t fooled.

As U.S. Middle District Judge Catherine Eagles pointedly observed last week, the General Assembly should have started working on these maps after they were ruled unconstitutional in August 2016 or, at the very least, when the Supreme Court upheld that ruling June 5.

On the contrary, both the N.C. House and Senate spurnedGov. Roy Cooper’s request for a special session to do just that.

“You don’t seem serious,” Eagles told Phillip Strach, an attorney representing the General Assembly, during the hearing.

Indeed. Virtually all maps created by the General Assembly since 2010 have been challenged in court as racial gerrymanders, but the General Assembly has managed to add enough foot dragging to the already time-consuming court process to stave off any real changes for six long years.

As noted earlier this year by former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Rhoda Billings, drawing districts is only difficult and time-consuming if you are trying to gerrymander. Billings, a Republican, was among a bipartisan panel of former judges who showed how nonpartisan redistricting could be accomplished by using straightforward criteria absent political considerations.

New district plans must be enacted by the legislature by Sept. 1 and filed with the court for review within seven days, along with transcripts of all committee hearings and floor debates; a description of the process each committee used in enacting the new plans, including the identities of those involved; any alternative district plans considered; and the criteria applied to create the new plans, including the extent to which race was a factor.

You may recall the importance of materials such as these in the case of the state’s Voter ID bill, which was struck down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in July 2016. As emails confirmed, the GOP sought data on black voting patterns and used that data to target African-Americans, who generally vote Democratic, with “almost surgical precision.”

Or the case of the racially gerrymandered congressional maps. When those 2011 maps were declared unconstitutional in 2016, Lewis and Sen. Bob Rucho (R-Mecklenburg) announced they would redraw those maps purely on the basis of partisan gerrymandering to retain the GOP’s 10-3 majority in the U.S. House. This in a state with roughly equal numbers of Republican and Democratic voters.

Those 2016 maps are being challenged by Common Cause North Carolina, a nonpartisan government watchdog group.

It appears the court is trying to head off the use of similar tactics in regard to the legislative maps by requiring that the maps — and all the criteria used to create them — be submitted for court approval.

The court did not approve a special election for the new legislative districts, which is just as well, because Democrats would have little time to muster opposition and launch a campaign. But the ruling did waive the one-year residency requirement for candidates in the new districts who would run for election in 2018.

This helps address the propensity of GOP mapmakers to create divots in the map to draw Democratic candidates out of their districts or double-bunk them with other Democrats, while adding loops and squares to place Republicans in the most advantageous districts. Our own U.S. Rep. Mark Walker benefited from just such a tweak of the congressional maps in 2016.

In truth, the new maps probably exist already but are being withheld until the last possible moment to limit the time Democratic candidates have to plan and campaign. The ruling noted that the defendants had not offered any evidence “that they have not begun to evaluate what the revised districts might look like.”

In short, they’re on to you.

The General Assembly can ask the court for a 14-day extension, but lawmakers would have to produce substantial evidence of what they’ve accomplished so far. Lewis and his merry mapmakers may yet find more ways to delay and obfuscate, but the ruling indicates both the court’s impatience and its willingness to draw and enact a remedial plan of its own “if the enacted plans prove constitutionally deficient.”

The court already has ample reason for doing just that.