Legislators object to N.C. Supreme Court speeding up redistricting review

Attorney Phil Strach offers a closing argument in a trial addressing N.C. election maps. (Image from WRAL.com pool video)
  • State legislators object to Common Cause's proposal to speed up N.C. Supreme Court consideration of a redistricting case.
  • Lawmakers argue Common Cause's timeline could cause confusion for voters casting ballots in 2022 congressional and legislative elections.

Legislative leaders are urging the N.C. Supreme Court to reject a shortened timetable for a case involving state election maps. Left-of-center activist group Common Cause is pushing for speedy court action on redistricting.

Both sides in the dispute filed paperwork this week with the state’s highest court.

In a court filing Thursday, lawyers for leading lawmakers oppose a plan that could lead to oral arguments in the case as early as September.

“Because the redistricting plans at issue are, and have been, established for the November 2022 election cycle, there is no pressing public need to argue and decide this case in a hastened fashion,” wrote attorney Phillip Strach. “To the contrary, arguing this highly publicized case at the same time citizens are voting for their congressional and state representatives will undoubtedly confuse voters as to whom they are voting for and whether this Court will change the districts they are currently in.”

“Nothing in this appeal will impact any election before those set to take place in 2024,” Strach added. “Therefore, even if briefing will be complete in September, oral argument and a final decision by this Court at the earliest possible opportunity — as Common Cause desires — is simply not necessary and certainly not in the public interest.”

North Carolinians will start voting in congressional and legislative elections as early as Sept. 9, Strach wrote.

“As the timeframe to election day in November draws closer, more people will be casting their votes,” he explained. “It will create confusion for voters going to the polls with one set of maps while at the same time this Court hears Plaintiffs’ arguments about alleged legal concerns with those very maps. Expediting a final decision on the remedial maps during an election conducted under those maps will create even more confusion and risk discouraging voters from potentially coming out at all (in particular given the few statewide races). Convenience to the parties is certainly not a reason to create these risks of voter confusion and discouragement.”

Lawmakers’ brief countered Common Cause’s pleas for urgent action. “There is also no legitimate indication that a decision in this case needs to be rushed to avoid Common Cause’s forecast of calamities on further remediation,” Strach wrote. “The redistricting process in 2021 was truncated in North Carolina and elsewhere, in large part, because of the delayed receipt of the 2020 census data. That is no longer an issue even for the congressional districts that the trial court held needed to be redrawn prior to the 2024 election.”

“Common Cause appears to ask for expedited review simply because the case is of public interest. But that is not the standard,” Strach added. “Here, there is no public interest for going faster than the Rules require — in particular when doing so this close to an election risks voter confusion.”

Common Cause filed paperwork on June 27 seeking a shorter redistricting timeline from the state Supreme Court.

“[E]xpedited consideration of this matter is warranted to ensure that any additional redistricting this cycle can be completed in an orderly fashion and with the clarity on the requirements of the state constitution that will be provided by the disposition of this appeal,” according to Common Cause’s brief. “Expedited consideration will allow the resolution of all the issues pending before the Court … before any future redistricting, avoiding the rushed timeline for future redistricting and related proceedings characteristic of the earlier proceedings in this matter.”

The state Supreme Court initially rejected each of three statewide election maps N.C. legislators drew for the 2022 election cycle. Those maps cover North Carolina’s 14 congressional districts, 50 state Senate districts, and 120 state House districts.

State courts later accepted legislators’ redrawn remedial maps for state House and Senate races, but judges rejected a revised congressional map. With help from three appointed special masters, a three-judge panel imposed its own congressional map for 2022.

Common Cause and other critics oppose the remedial maps and want to see them thrown out for the 2024 election cycle.

This state-level legal dispute is taking place as the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take up N.C. redistricting again this fall. In a case titled Moore v. Harper, justices on the nation’s highest court will debate how much power state courts have to challenge election maps prepared by a state legislature.

In its latest court filing Friday, Common Cause used the U.S. Supreme Court’s action to bolster the argument for speedy state court action.

“The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to resolve this question supports and warrants an expeditious disposition of Legislative Defendants’ appeal to this Court concerning the remedial congressional plan,” wrote attorney Hilary Klein of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. Klein helps represent Common Cause.

“The interpretation of state constitutional provisions and the scope of this Court’s inherent authority in remedying state constitutional violations is central to the issues before the U.S. Supreme Court in Moore.”

“[T]his Court’s final decision on state constitutional requirements in redistricting and a full view of how this Court will exercise its inherent authority to interpret and ensure compliance with the state constitution is necessary to fully inform, and thereby assist, the U.S. Supreme Court’s
decision in Moore,” Klein added. “A failure to expedite this appeal presents the real and substantial risk that the U.S. Supreme Court could decide issues in Moore with an incomplete or inaccurate understanding of state law and the scope of this Court’s exercise of remedial power
in this matter.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated at 4 p.m. to incorporate Common Cause’s latest arguments.