News: Quick Takes

Legislators await news from court before taking up redistricting

House lawmakers gathered earlier this year for a special session in the historic capitol building. (CJ Photo by Kari Travis)
House lawmakers gathered earlier this year for a special session in the historic capitol building. (CJ Photo by Kari Travis)

As state lawmakers returned home for a brief summer break, some members and their staffs were awaiting court orders outlining new General Assembly districts after federal judges declared the current map unconstitutional and racially gerrymandered.

A U.S. District Court for the Raleigh area is expected to issue instructions soon that may break up 28 state legislative districts. The goal is making future General Assembly elections more competitive.

A spokesman for House Redistricting Committee Chairman David Lewis told Carolina Journal the committee expects court instructions any day. With those guidelines, lawmakers will set a tentative schedule to meet in September and have a new map in place by Nov. 15.

Beyond the wait for new court orders, the General Assembly has taken only basic steps to prepare because the law is the main driver of redistricting efforts, said Mark Coggins, policy adviser to Lewis, a Harnett County Republican.

The office of the Senate Redistricting Committee Chairman, Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, did not immediately respond to CJ.

The forthcoming court orders would be the latest episode in a years-long redistricting legal saga.

A panel of federal judges from the U.S. District Court from the Middle District of North Carolina ruled in August 2016 that 28 North Carolina legislative districts were racially gerrymandered, violating the Voting Rights Act.

These districts were last drawn in 2011, following the 2010 census. Critics say Republicans benefited from packing black voters in Democratic-friendly districts, boosting the number of districts Republicans would likely win.

The judges required new districts in time for a snap 2017 election of legislators in areas affected by redistricting. This would have disrupted the normal election cycle of legislative races every two years. It also could set the stage for some legislators serving two-year terms and others only one, depending on whether their districts were redrawn by court order. These concerns led the General Assembly to appeal its case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court killed the district court’s order in June, and sent the case back for further resolution. The high court said the three-judge panel examined the issue in a “cursory fashion” and did not justify a remedy that would be so disruptive.

Days after the Supreme Court decision, Gov. Roy Cooper called for a special session of the General Assembly to draw new legislative districts, in expectation of a court-ordered 2017 election.

Already in session to pass the state budget and other laws, Republican legislators and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest rejected Cooper’s request, saying the state constitution called for a special session only in “extraordinary occasions.”