Redistricting legal battle could feature new fight over special masters’ fees

Attorney Phil Strach questions a witness during a trial addressing N.C. election maps. (Image from pool video)
  • Republican legislative leaders and their redistricting critics could battle over court-ordered fees for the work of special masters.
  • Those special masters threw out legislators' congressional map and substituted their own plan for the 2022 election.

North Carolina’s most recent legal conflict over election maps could produce a new dispute involving fees for court-appointed special masters. A filing Tuesday at the N.C. Supreme Court signaled that possibility.

Phillip Strach, an attorney representing Republican legislative leaders, filed a motion with the state’s highest court. He asked justices to extend briefing deadlines by a month. The court granted Strach’s request without comment Tuesday afternoon.

Among the reasons for a time extension: The parties are likely to take different views about paying fees for redistricting special masters.

“[O]n 13 June 2022, the parties filed comments in response to the Trial Court’s Notice of Intent to Assess Fees and Costs of the Special Masters,” Strach wrote. “Given that the Trial Court did not provide an opportunity for response, it is likely that the Court will issue an order of some sort in the next month.”

“Plaintiffs and Defendants have extremely different positions on the matter of fees, including the Trial Court’s jurisdiction to hear such an issue; therefore, it is also likely one or both parties could file an appeal from any order issued by the Trial Court,” Strach added.

With a 30-day briefing extension, all parties could address fees along with other disputed issues, Strach explained. “Judicial economy supports such an extension so that this Court can fully hear all issues surrounding the appeal, and not be forced to hear the issue of fees separately.”

Strach also reminded the Supreme Court that the printed record in the redistricting battle is “voluminous,” with more than 15,000 pages of documents.

“As the election districts are set for the 2022 election, and primaries have already been conducted, there is no need for an expedited review of this matter,” he wrote.

The first briefs had been due at the Supreme Court on June 27. In allowing Strach’s motion, the court extended the deadline to July 25. Other deadlines also will be pushed back by 30 days.

Three special masters — former N.C. Supreme Court Justices Bob Orr and Bob Edmunds and former University of North Carolina System President Tom Ross — helped a three-judge trial panel address state legislative and congressional maps during the redistricting case.

The special masters accepted N.C. legislators’ court-ordered remedial maps for state House and Senate elections. But the special masters rejected lawmakers’ remedial congressional election map. The special masters substituted their own congressional plan. That plan for North Carolina’s 14 congressional districts is scheduled to be used for the 2022 election alone.

Republican legislators complained about the special masters’ interference in the congressional map. They said the special masters rejected a map that would have produced some of the nation’s most competitive congressional elections. Instead, the special masters’ substitute map virtually guaranteed the election of seven Republicans and six Democrats to Congress, with just one true toss-up district, according to GOP complaints.

The special masters’ work generated another controversy. In February Republican legislative leaders asked judges to remove Sam Wang of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project as an adviser to the special masters. Wang had been accused of violating a court order limiting contact between the special masters’ team and redistricting experts working for the parties in the case. Courts dismissed GOP complaints and allowed Wang to continue working with the special masters.

An April news report revealed that Wang was under investigation in New Jersey. In that state’s redistricting dispute, Wang faced accusations that he manipulated data to match his personal agenda.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 5 p.m. Tuesday to include the Supreme Court’s response.