Plaintiffs challenging NC Senate map ask judge to rule by Dec. 29

State Senate districts in Senate Bill 758 face a federal legal challenge. (Image from

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  • Plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging North Carolina's new state Senate map are asking a judge to issue a ruling in the case by Dec. 29.
  • In a letter to US District Judge James Dever, attorney Edwin Speas warns that failure to issue a ruling by the end of the calendar year could threaten North Carolina's March 5 primary.
  • Speas submitted his letter 14 days after Dever issued an order rejecting the plaintiffs' request to expedite the case. Dever labeled that request "meritless."

Critics who want to block North Carolina’s new state Senate election map are asking a federal judge to issue a ruling in their case by Dec. 29. They warn that a ruling after that date could threaten the state’s scheduled March 5 primary election.

They seek a response to their request by Thursday.

Attorney Edwin Speas submitted a letter Monday to US District Judge James Dever. It arrived 14 days after Dever rejected the plaintiffs’ attempts to expedite the case’s timeline. Dever labeled the request to speed up the case “meritless.”

Speas’ letter attempts “to respectfully request clarification concerning the schedule for resolution” of the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction. An injunction would block state election officials from using the map governing North Carolina’s 50 state Senate districts.

Candidates started filing on Dec. 4 for elections under the challenged map. Candidate filing ends Friday.

“In particular, we wish to confirm that the motion will be decided in sufficient time for the aggrieved side to seek relief from the Fourth Circuit without a need to consider adjusting the March 2024 primary date,” Speas wrote.

The current court schedule calls for legislative leaders and the State Board of Elections to file responses to the preliminary injunction request by Dec. 22, the Friday before Christmas. “To facilitate prompt resolution of the motion, Plaintiffs plan to file their reply brief (and any supporting materials) the following business day, Tuesday, December 26, 2023,” Speas wrote.

“If this Court issues its decision on the motion by Friday, December 29, 2023, the aggrieved side will have time to seek emergency relief on appeal, such that the Fourth Circuit could conclusively settle the relevant district boundary in January 2024 without a need to consider moving the March 2024 primaries,” Speas added.

Appeals of Dever’s rulings would head to the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia.

“Plaintiffs appreciate that the Court has a heavy caseload, but this case is of extraordinary public importance, involving the voting rights of over a hundred thousand Black citizens in northeastern North Carolina’ s Black Belt counties,” Speas wrote to Dever. “Respectfully, we submit that Plaintiffs’ preliminary injunction motion — which concerns only a single district boundary between two districts in the 2023 enacted Senate map — should be decided here promptly to ensure the opportunity for timely review by the Fourth Circuit.”

Dever issued a Nov. 27 order criticizing the plaintiffs’ attempt to compress the case’s timeline.

Two plaintiffs filed suit on Nov. 20 objecting to the new map for North Carolina’s 50 state Senate districts. The plaintiffs followed up with a motion for a preliminary injunction to block the map. They filed that motion on Nov. 22, the day before Thanksgiving.

Plaintiffs also set out a proposed timeline that would have forced the State Board of Elections and legislative leaders to respond to the requested injunction on the Monday after the holiday. The timeline called for a hearing the following Wednesday and a decision on the injunction two days later.

Dever noted in his order that the General Assembly enacted the new state Senate map through Senate Bill 758 on Oct. 25.

“Plaintiffs do not explain why they waited 26 days to file this action and 28 days to move for a pre1iminary injunction,” he wrote. “In so waiting, plaintiffs belie their ‘claim that there is an urgent need for speedy action to protect [their] rights’ or that their entitlement to a preliminary injunction is clear.”

“Moreover, plaintiffs fail to justify giving defendants one business day to respond to plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, which plaintiffs waited to file until the day before Thanksgiving,” Dever added. “Thus, plaintiffs ask the court to expedite defendants’ response to a motion before the court or defendants know the contents of that motion.”

Dever noted that the motion filed the day before Thanksgiving included a “25-page memorandum in support and five exhibits totaling over 400 pages.”

“Furthermore, plaintiffs’ request completely ignores that their case is not the only case on the court’s docket and that plaintiffs do not set this court’s schedule for holding hearings or deciding motions,” the judge wrote. “This court has over 1,000 cases. For example, this week the court will hold thirteen sentencing hearings, three revocation hearings, a civil bench trial, and two pretrial conferences in criminal cases set for jury trial during the weeks of December 4, 2023, and December 11, 2023. The court also will resolve countless motions in numerous other cases.”

“’Redistricting based on section 2 of the Voting Rights Act … is … sometimes undertaken with looming electoral deadlines. But it is not a game of ambush,” Dever wrote, quoting an earlier court ruling. “This court declines plaintiffs’ invitation to make this case a game of any kind, much less a game of ambush. Plaintiffs fail to justify their expedited schedule.”

“In opposition to this conclusion, plaintiffs contend that the ‘General Assembly unreasonably delayed six months before enacting the 2023 Senate map’ and defendants allegedly should have the expert analyses they need to respond to plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction,” Dever added. “The court rejects plaintiffs’ contention that six months is an ‘unreasonable delay’ for the General Assembly to enact a new electoral Senate map.”

“Moreover, plaintiffs seek expedited relief in this court, not defendants. Thus, plaintiffs bear the burden of justifying an expedited process,” the judge wrote. “Plaintiffs have not met that burden.”

“Plaintiffs assert they ‘worked diligently,’ but do not, for example, explain how long it took their three experts to prepare their analyses or how long they then needed to prepare their extensive filings in support of their motion for a preliminary injunction,” the judge added. “Accordingly, the arguments fail.”

“In sum, the court DENIES as meritless plaintiffs’ emergency motion to expedite,” Dever concluded. The defendants in the case can follow the normal timeline for responding to the motion for a preliminary injunction. Dever will hold a hearing “in due course if one is needed to resolve plaintiffs’ motion.”

Two individual plaintiffs filed suit on Nov. 20 against the State Board of Elections and state legislative leaders.

“Despite having ample evidence of racially polarized voting and a history of discrimination in the ‘Black Belt counties’ of northeastern North Carolina, and an obligation under the Voting Rights Act to analyze that evidence before drawing districts, the North Carolina General Assembly adopted a Senate plan that unlawfully deprives Black voters of the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice,” according to the complaint filed on behalf of plaintiffs Rodney Pierce and Moses Matthews.

The plaintiffs are working with Washington-based attorneys from Arnold & Porter Kay Scholer, veterans of North Carolina redistricting battles. They are also working with Speas, who defended Democratic election maps against lawsuits as a state Justice Department lawyer before joining the private sector.

The suit labels North Carolina’s state Senate map, Senate Bill 758, “just the most recent episode in North Carolina’s ‘long history of race discrimination generally and race-based vote suppression in particular.’”

“The Black population in North Carolina’s Black Belt counties is sufficiently numerous and geographically compact to form a majority-minority district,” the suit argues. “Voting in the region is also highly polarized along racial lines — Black voters there are politically cohesive, but white voters vote sufficiently as a bloc to usually defeat minority candidates of choice. Nonetheless, SB 758 ‘cracks’ Black voters in the region across multiple districts, including Senate District 2, which stretches more than 160 miles from the Virginia border to Carteret County on the Atlantic Ocean.”

“When considered against the totality of the circumstances, SB 758’s cracking of Black voters in this region dilutes their voting strength in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued.