New Congressional Maps in North Carolina will stand for 2020, Court Rules December 02, 2019
News and Observer bmurphy [at] mcclatchydc.com (BY BRIAN MURPHY) AND wdoran [at] newsobserver.com (WILL DORAN)
WASHINGTON: The new congressional maps passed by state lawmakers last month can stand for the 2020 election, a three-judge panel ruled Monday, December 2.
The previous maps gave Republicans a 10-3 advantage in the U.S. House of Representatives. Under the new maps, Democrats are expected to pick up two seats, cutting it down to an 8-5 Republican edge.
Democrats, however, had said the new maps still weren’t fair and needed to be redrawn again. But the judges hearing the case — two Democrats and one Republican — unanimously disagreed.
This case was only over U.S. House districts. A separate lawsuit, over the legislative districts for the state’s 120 N.C. House and 50 N.C. Senate seats, also recently ended. It was overseen by the same judges and had a similar ending. In both cases, Democrats got the old Republican-drawn maps thrown out as unconstitutional, but then failed in later efforts to change the new maps the legislature drew as replacements.
On Monday the judges said that while there are some still unanswered questions about the new congressional maps and how fair they may be, there simply isn’t enough time to delve into those questions.
The plaintiffs, in a statement Monday night, said they won’t appeal the decision, citing the timeline for candidate filing and “the nature of today’s ruling.”
“After nearly a decade of voting in some of the most gerrymandered districts in the country, courts have put new maps in place that are an improvement over the status quo, but the people still deserve better,” said former attorney general Eric Holder in a statement. He is chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which is backing the lawsuit in North Carolina and similar ones in other states.
Within just two weeks, if there weren’t maps in place, the state would have had to move the primary elections for Congress. Lawyers for the Republican defendants said that would have led to lower voter turnout and extra costs for local governments, and the judges later said avoiding such a delay was their primary concern.
The judges applauded the Republican-led General Assembly for a level of transparency during redistricting — which the judges themselves ordered — that has never before been seen in this state. Back-room deals dominated in the past.
“The citizens of North Carolina, for the first time, were witnesses to the drafting of their voting districts,” Ridgeway said. The ruling went on to specify that the public could watch and comment in real time, since the maps “weren’t drawn in the basement of a political operative’s home.”
That was a reference to Tom Hofeller, the late GOP gerrymandering strategist who drew multiple versions of maps for North Carolina starting in 2011, which have now since been ruled unconstitutional. Republican lawmakers had tried in vain to keep Hofeller’s files secret, during the lawsuit over the legislative districts.
A new congressional map will be drawn in 2022 after the U.S. Census. North Carolina is expected to get a 14th U.S. House seat.
“With the redistricting process set to occur in 2021, today’s ruling is not the end of the fight for fair maps in North Carolina and states around the country,” Holder said. “I will fight for fairness and for maps that actually reflect the diversity and desires of the people.”
The anti-gerrymandering group Common Cause North Carolina was a plaintiff in the lawsuit over the legislative lines, not the congressional lines, but the group’s executive director Bob Phillips was in court Monday to watch nevertheless. He said he will continue to push for more permanent reforms at the legislature, so that future districts can be drawn with “much more robust public input” and potentially avoid so many legal challenges.
“I think there’s a lot of room for improvement on transparency,” Phillips said. “Obviously reform in our mind means somebody else besides the lawmakers drawing it.”
It’s unclear whether Republican lawmakers will embrace such reforms, although a few have endorsed ideas for reform. GOP leaders said Monday they’re glad the court process appears to finally be over. The lines for both the congressional and legislative maps have now been redrawn to replace unconstitutional maps that were themselves replacements for different unconstitutional maps Republicans passed in 2011.
“Now that a unanimous, bipartisan court has denied the plaintiffs’ last-minute challenge to the 2019 Congressional map and the candidate filing period is open and under way, we can finally put this decade of relentless litigation behind us,” said Republican Sen. Ralph Hise of Mitchell County, a top redistricting leader.
Democrats, however, saw it differently.
“North Carolina Republicans yet again run out the clock on fair maps, denying justice to North Carolina voters and forcing our state to go another election using undemocratic district lines,” NC Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin said.