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Guilford County on the hook for legal fees in redistricting lawsuit

Redistricting and gerrymandering are getting plenty of attention these days at the state level — but a more minor partisan redistricting fight from 2015 could end up costing Guilford County $600,000.

As the News & Record in Greensboro reported this week:

The legal fees stem from a federal lawsuit the residents and city of Greensboro filed against the county that challenged the constitutionality of a 2015 state law championed by former Sen. Trudy Wade. Under that law, the council would have been reduced from nine to seven members and the mayor would have only been able to vote in the case of a tie, council member terms would have increased and voting districts would have been altered.

They sued the Guilford County Board of Elections under the belief that the state was protected from the lawsuit but that the county was acting as a branch of the state responsible for conducting municipal elections and enforcing the law.

That left the county as a silent defendant in a federal trial.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles ruled in 2017 that the changes to Greensboro City Council were unconstitutional.

The eight residents filed a motion asking for the county to pay back their legal feels, but in January 2018, Eagles ruled against them.

She said the county board was an innocent and non-responsible party, that it would be unjust to make the county pay the fees and that the residents should have sued the state.

The residents who sued are Lewis A. Brandon III, Joyce Johnson, the Rev. Nelson Johnson, Richard Alan Koritz, Sandra Self Koritz, Charli Mae Sykes, Maurice Warren II and Georgeanna Butler Womack.

They took Eagles’ decision to the federal appeals court and argued that there was an established precedent that a party that enforces an unconstitutional law, even if it did not enact or define the law, is still legally responsible to pay the legal fees, court documents said.

The move by Wade to redistrict heavily Democratic Greensboro was unpopular in Guilford County and divisive even within the Republican party, with junior Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford) initially opposing Wade’s move (but later supporting a revised redistricting plan under political pressure).

The episode was held up by political experts as one of a number instances of an over-reaching GOP legislature intervening in more progressive local government decisions.

For those keeping score on the major players in this strange case:

Melvin “Skip” Alston, a Democratic Guilford County Commissioner who was then supporting Republican Trudy Wade’s bid to redistrict the city from Raleigh, came into conflict with fellow Democrats and the NAACP over the plan. After a failed Democratic primary bid against N.C. Sen. Gladys Robinson, Alston is now back on the board of commissioners.

Jon Hardister, then a young Republican legislator in conflict with the more senior Wade, is now House Majority Whip.

Wade herself was narrowly defeated by  Sen. Michael Garrett (D-NC) in 2018. She’s now planning a comeback.

Anita Earls, then the lawyer from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice who represented citizens in the redistricting case, is now an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina.

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