A bipartisan unanimous three-judge panel has upheld newly drawn maps for North Carolina’s legislative elections. But the same panel has rejected a revised map for congressional elections.
In place of a remedial congressional map drawn by the Republican-led General Assembly, the judges substituted their own map for the 2022 congressional elections. A panel of three “special masters” drew that map for the judges.
The panel’s 23-page order reached the public shortly after a noon deadline set by the N.C. Supreme Court. Appeals from the three-judge panel’s ruling must be made to the high court by 5 p.m. today. Candidate filing for all N.C. elections, including legislative and congressional races linked to the disputed maps, is set to resume Thursday morning.
“The Court concludes that the Remedial Senate Plan satisfies the Supreme Court’s standards,” according to the order from Judges Graham Shirley and Nathaniel Poovey, both Republicans, and Dawn Layton, a Democrat. “The Court concludes that the Remedial House Plan satisfies the Supreme Court’s standards.”
“Because the Court concludes that the enacted Remedial Senate and House Plans meet the Supreme Court’s standards and requirements in the Supreme Court Remedial Order and full opinion, the Remedial Senate and House Plans are presumptively constitutional,” the order added. “Furthermore, no evidence presented to the Court is sufficient to overcome this presumption for the Remedial Senate and House Plans, and those plans are therefore constitutional and will be approved.”
The unanimous panel reached a different conclusion about the congressional map. It “does not satisfy the Supreme Court’s standards.”
“Plaintiffs suggest that if we conclude that a Remedial Plan passed by the General Assembly does not satisfy the Supreme Court’s standards, we should simply jettison that plan and adopt one of their plans,” the three-judge panel wrote. “We do not believe that our conclusion on the Remedial Congressional Plan — that it fails to satisfy the Supreme Court’s standards — automatically results in the adoption of an alternate plan proposed by Plaintiffs.”
“Given that the ultimate authority and directive is given to the Legislature to draw redistricting maps, we conclude that the appropriate remedy is to modify the Legislative Remedial Congressional Plan to bring it into compliance with the Supreme Court’s order,” the three-judge panel continued.
An “interim” congressional map drawn by special masters Bob Edmunds and Bob Orr, former N.C. Supreme Court justices, and Thomas Ross, a former judge and former UNC System president, will be used for 2022 elections. A new General Assembly would be free to redraw the congressional map for future elections.
Edmunds, Orr, and Ross explained their findings in a memo.
“There is disagreement among the parties as to whether the proposed remedial congressional plan meets the presumptively constitutional thresholds suggested by the Supreme Court,” they wrote. “The Special Masters, considering the reports of their advisors and the experts of the parties while giving appropriate deference to the General Assembly, are of the opinion that the proposed remedial congressional plan fails to meet the threshold of constitutionality and recommend that the Trial Court reject the proposed remedial congressional plan as being unconstitutional.”
The special masters used the General Assembly’s remedial plan as the starting point for revisions.
“The Special Masters believe the modified congressional plan recommended for adoption to the Trial Court achieves the partisan fairness and ‘substantially equal voting power’ required by the Supreme Court of North Carolina without diluting votes under the Voting Rights Act while maintaining the number of county splits, retaining equal population, compactness, and contiguity, as well as respecting municipal boundaries,” they wrote.
Lawmakers were forced to redraw their initial set of N.C. House, N.C. Senate, and congressional maps because of a Feb. 4 order from the state Supreme Court. In a 4-3 party-line ruling, the high court’s four Democrats agreed that the original maps represented unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering.
When the Supreme Court ruling forced lawmakers to approve new maps last week, the N.C. House plan secured widespread bipartisan support. The House approved it, 115-5, while the Senate endorsed it, 41-3.
New maps for the state Senate and the 14-member congressional delegation created more partisan division. Only Republicans voted for the plans. Almost all votes against the plans came from Democrats.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, blasted the court’s decision. “Today’s decision allows a blatantly unfair and unconstitutional State Senate map that may have been the worst of the bunch,” Cooper said in a prepared statement. “That is bad for North Carolina because it strips voters of their voice in our democracy.”
“Our elections should not go forward until we have fair, constitutional maps,” Cooper added.