The Republican-led N.C. General Assembly must draw new state House and Senate district maps, a court has ruled.
But the ruling — delivered in Common Cause v. Lewis — won’t prevent excessive future gerrymandering, experts say.
Tuesday, Sept. 3, a three-judge Superior Court panel scrapped North Carolina’s election maps. The voting districts were cases of extreme partisan gerrymandering and violated the N.C. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, Free Elections Clause, and Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Assembly Clauses, judges said. The unanimous ruling was given by Democratic Judges Paul Ridgeway and Alma Hinton, and Republican Judge Joseph Crosswhite.
Draw new maps, and do it right, the judges said in a 357 page-ruling that laid some hefty ground rules.
Under the judgment, lawmakers aren’t allowed to use election results data to “pack and crack” constituents into districts that benefit the majority party. They’re not allowed to use the old maps as a starting point for new districts. They’re not allowed to hire outside help without the court’s permission.
The decision doesn’t sit well with GOP legislators, but Republicans aren’t going to fight, Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said Tuesday.
“We disagree with the court’s ruling as it contradicts the Constitution and binding legal precedent, but we intend to respect the court’s decision and finally put this divisive battle behind us,” Berger said. “Nearly a decade of relentless litigation has strained the legitimacy of this state’s institutions, and the relationship between its leaders, to the breaking point. It’s time to move on.”
Berger’s move is pragmatic, said Michael Bitzer, a professor of American politics at Catawba College. Though Republicans can’t use elections data for any of the remedial maps, the criteria still allow them to protect incumbents. That gives Republicans an edge.
The legislature must turn over new maps by Sept. 18, the court ruled, and the public must be given full access as the maps are sketched.
Lawmakers can meet that deadline if they buckle down, especially since they’re not counting elections data, Bitzer said. Packing and cracking districts to ensure majority partisanship is time-consuming. Without that gerrymandering component, map designers should be working with a “simple slice-and-dice formula,” he said.
The Senate Redistricting Committee scheduled a meeting for 10:30 a.m. Monday, Sept. 9, at the Legislative Building.
Legislative lawyers were still “digesting the decision” early Wednesday afternoon, Berger spokesman Bill D’Elia told Carolina Journal.
Since the case isn’t likely to go to the N.C. Supreme Court, rules laid out in Common Cause v. Lewis won’t set precedent for future redistricting litigation. That means partisan gerrymandering is likely to continue — unless the legislature enacts reforms, said former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr.
It’s a solution both parties should get behind, he said, “especially considering when they were in the minority party and getting steamrolled.”
House Bill 140, The FAIR Act, has since February been sitting in the House Redistricting Committee. The bill includes a proposed constitutional amendment to set redistricting rules, and requires legislative staffers — not lawmakers — to draw nonpartisan maps. The rules follow recommendations from the state Supreme Court in the 2002 and 2004 Stephenson v. Bartlett redistricting lawsuits.
Legislators would approve the maps or send them back to staff for revisions.
If it gets the 60-percent majority vote in both legislative chambers, H.B. 140 would become part of the N.C. Constitution in 2020 if voters approved it.