Federal three-judge panel will take first look at redistricting cases May 28

Listen to this story (10 minutes)

  • A three-judge panel overseeing two federal redistricting lawsuits in North Carolina has scheduled its first hearing on May 28.
  • The cases challenge North Carolina's congressional and legislative election maps. Neither case is expected to affect this year's election.
  • If plaintiffs are successful, judges could force state lawmakers to draw new maps for 2026 elections.

The three-judge panel overseeing two federal redistricting lawsuits in North Carolina will hold its first hearing in the cases on May 28. The suits challenge the state’s congressional and legislative election maps.

Neither case is expected to affect this year’s elections. If the plaintiffs are successful, judges could force state lawmakers to redraw maps for 2026.

Appeals Court Judge Allison Rushing Jones and District Court Judges Richard Myers and Thomas Schroeder are assigned to both cases. Republican presidents appointed all three judges. Jones and Myers are participating in the panel thanks to appointments from Chief Judge Albert Diaz of the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals. Former President Barack Obama appointed Diaz.

The panel announced the May 28 hearing date on Friday. The judges replaced a canceled May 22 pretrial hearing.

Federal judges agreed in March to consolidate the two cases. Republican state legislative leaders had requested the consolidation. Plaintiffs in both cases had opposed the request.

An order from the three judges cited “common issues of fact and law” linked to the challenged congressional election map. Judges also determined that consolidation would promote “judicial economy and reduce the burden on the parties as a whole by avoiding duplication of effort.” The panel labeled the plaintiffs’ concerns about consolidation as “overstated.”

Diaz appointed Rushing and Myers to both cases. Schroeder had drawn the initial assignment for one case. The consolidation meant that Schroeder took over for District Judge William Osteen for the other case.

News of the consolidation arrived on the same day that Republican state legislative leaders filed their latest document in one of the suits, Williams v. Hall. In that case, plaintiffs working with Democratic operative Marc Elias’ law firm challenge North Carolina’s new congressional election map.

 “The relief sought by Plaintiffs would involve unconstitutional racial gerrymanders because they request districts in which racial considerations predominate over traditional districting criteria,” wrote lawmakers’ lawyers.

The court filing also argues it “would be inequitable to afford Plaintiffs relief so soon before the 2024 elections.” North Carolina conducted primary elections under the challenged map this month. The general election is scheduled in November.

“Race did not predominate in the drawing of any district,” lawmakers’ court filing argued. “The General Assembly did not ‘crack’ or ‘pack’ minority voters in its Senate districting plan.

Paperwork filed in February outlined the plaintiffs’ objections to consolidation.

“Consolidation makes sense where it helps streamline litigation, not complicate it,” wrote the lawyers for the Williams plaintiffs. “Here, Legislative Defendants ask this Court to consolidate two cases … on the basis that the two ‘involve common questions of law and fact,’ and ‘substantially similar claims.’”

“But while both cases involve challenges to North Carolina’s congressional map, the claims vary significantly,” according to the Williams plaintiffs. “Williams is a far narrower case.”

“Specifically, among the 28 discrete challenges alleged in both Complaints, only one is overlapping,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers added. “Rather than promote judicial economy, consolidating these two cases would only add unnecessary expense, delay, and confusion to the litigation.”

The second case, NC NAACP v. Berger, challenges the congressional map and maps for state House and Senate elections.

“Consolidation is inappropriate because this case and Williams differ significantly in scope and substance, consolidation as Legislative Defendants request would risk serious prejudice to both sets of Plaintiffs, and there are more appropriate alternatives, such as coordinating between the parties in discovery, that will achieve the efficiencies and reduction in costs that Legislative Defendants desire,” wrote lawyers representing the state NAACP, left-of-center activist group Common Cause, and individual plaintiffs. Those groups are working with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

“While both cases involve redistricting in North Carolina, the commonalities largely end there,” the NAACP’s lawyers wrote.

Top state legislative leaders filed paperwork on Jan. 25 asking federal judges to consolidate the two cases.

“Two sets of Plaintiffs sued Legislative Defendants and the North Carolina State Board of Elections (“NCSBE”) and its members challenging the Congressional redistricting plan ratified by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2023,” lawmakers’ lawyers wrote. “One set also challenged the state legislative plans also ratified in 2023.”

“In both cases, Plaintiffs allege that the enacted plans constitute racial gerrymanders in violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution,” the court filing continued. “Because both cases raise constitutional challenges to North Carolina’s 2023 districting plans, both cases have already been assigned to two different three-judge panels.”

“Given how closely related the two sets of claims are, and the significant factual, legal, and party overlap between them, consolidation is warranted, appropriate, and indeed necessary for the administration of justice (and of elections in North Carolina),” lawmakers’ lawyers argued. “Both cases involve common questions of law and fact, and consolidation will avoid the substantial risk of inconsistent adjudication of those questions of law and fact, as well as burdensome and unnecessary duplication of costs and expense on the part of the parties.”

“The elimination of duplicate work will also benefit judicial economy, allowing a single panel to decide the complex constitutional and statutory issues raised in these actions,” according to the court filing.

Plaintiffs in the case titled Williams v. Hall filed suit on Dec. 4 against North Carolina’s new congressional election map. A separate case filed on Dec. 19, NC State Conference of the NAACP v. Berger, challenges the congressional map along with maps for the state House and Senate.

The North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, left-of-center activist group Common Cause, and eight individual plaintiffs filed suit on Dec. 19, four days after candidate filing ended under the challenged maps.

“In 2023, the North Carolina General Assembly redrew its state legislative and congressional plans to severely diminish the voting power of North Carolina’s Black voters, who comprise over 22% of residents in the state,” according to the 87-page complaint. “The General Assembly achieved this by intentionally dismantling existing and longstanding Black opportunity districts and diluting Black voting power in North Carolina’s historic Black Belt, which stretches across the northeastern portion of the state, and by selectively targeting Black voters in other areas of the state. The effect of these actions is to inequitably reduce the electoral influence of the Black voters of North Carolina in violation of the Voting Rights Act and the United States Constitution.”

Plaintiffs are working with lawyers from the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice, along with a law firm with offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC.

The lawsuit says state legislators adopted their maps for state House, state Senate, and congressional races “using an intentionally rushed and deficient process that denied any opportunity for meaningful engagement and showed clear disregard for the interests, needs, and desires of North Carolina’s Black voters.”

The suit specifically targets state Senate Districts 1, 2, 7, and 8; state House Districts 4, 5, 7, 10, 12, 24, 25, and 32; and Congressional Districts 1, 5, 6, 9, and 10.

Plaintiffs urge the court to enjoin state officials from “calling, holding, supervising, or certifying any elections” under the challenged maps. The suit also calls for a remedial process that would produce new maps “in time for use no later than the 2026 general election and beyond.”

In the Williams case, 18 black and Latino plaintiffs working with Elias’ law firm target only the congressional map. They took their case to court on the same afternoon that candidate filing began for the state’s 2024 elections.

The suit specifically targets the new 1st, 6th, 12th, and 14th Congressional Districts as “unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.”

Plaintiffs ask a federal court to declare that the congressional map “discriminates against minority voters in violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.” They seek an injunction blocking enforcement of the congressional map. They ask the court to “[h]old hearings, consider briefing and evidence, and otherwise take actions” that would lead to a “valid” congressional plan.

The suit names Rep. Destin Hall, R-Caldwell, as lead defendant. Hall chairs the state House’s redistricting committee. Plaintiffs also name as co-defendants the three state Senate redistricting chairmen, the top officers in the state House and Senate, and the State Board of Elections and its individual members.

The map used in 2022, drawn by experts working with court-appointed “special masters,” produced a US House delegation with seven Democrats and seven Republicans. Analysts have estimated that the new map is likely to give Republicans a 10-4 advantage.

A third redistricting lawsuit in the Eastern District challenges two state Senate districts. That case, Pierce v. NC State Board of Elections, could head to trial as early as December.