Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Advocates: The time is now for SCOTUS to set partisan gerrymandering standard

In less than two weeks, attorneys will be back in front of the U.S. Supreme Court to argue a North Carolina partisan gerrymandering case — but this time, they hope, things will be different.

“The North Carolina case is the best test case to right the wrongs in North Carolina and frankly to set a standard throughout the country,” said Kathay Feng, national redistricting director at Common Cause. “Paired with the Maryland case, which is an example of Democratic gerrymandering, we believe that this is the moment for SCOTUS to clearly articulate a partisan gerrymandering that is unconstitutional.”

Oral arguments in sibling cases Common Cause v. Rucho and League of Women Voters v. Rucho will be heard March 26. A federal court has already found twice in the partisan gerrymandering cases that the state’s 2016 congressional redistricting plan was unconstitutional.

Feng gave an overview of the cases Wednesday in a teleconference. She said the undisputed facts of the case make it different from others heard by the high court in the past — mainly that GOP legislative leaders said on the record they drew districts to maximize partisan gain.

Daniel Tokaji, an election law and First Amendment professor from Moritz College of Law, agreed and said the strongest legal basis of the Common Cause case was the violation of First Amendment associational rights. The state Democratic Party is a party in the case.

Tokaji said there is 50 years of Supreme Court precedent protecting associational rights and that in some cases, voting is an associational right.

“It’s not only the affect on who gets elected to office that courts should consider … but also effects on the disfavored political party and its supporters outside the electoral process,” he said.

That includes difficulties fundraising, registering voters, generating support, recruiting candidates and accomplishing policy objectives. North Carolina has undisputed evidence of all of it.

Tokaji said the North Carolina best captures the type of injury inflicted by gerrymandering, a systemic injury to a group of people. It also provides the court an opportunity to set a nuanced standard — just because there is intent for partisan gerrymandering doesn’t mean a map is unconstitutional; the court can allow states to present reasons for gerrymandering, like keeping districts compact or geographical considerations.

“To me the biggest reason for being hopeful here — we don’t know for sure what the court is going to do — is that the evidence about how bad the problem has gotten and how toxic it is for our politics as a whole becomes clearer and clearer over time and this isn’t a problem that’s going to fix itself,” he said.

Love Caesar, 20, a student at North Carolina A&T University and a democracy fellow with Common Cause NC, described the effects of partisan gerrymandering on her campus and said it’s very disheartening for students.

“There’s no other college in this country divided into two congressional districts, especially right down the middle,” she said. “It’s so blatantly clear how it’s done. The United States has a history of taking the Black vote and suppressing it, so it’s clear how this gerrymandering dilutes the people’s power at A&T.”

She added that she thinks it’s important for the Supreme Court to set a precedent now because “it’s setting an example to us who are future leaders of this country … about how they want us to act in the future.”

“Will they act with integrity and strike down unconstitutional gerrymandering?” she asked. “I would really, really love to vote on a constitutional map.”

The high court will also hear a Maryland case involving Democratic partisan gerrymandering.

Commentary, Legislature, NC Budget and Tax Center

New reports: Together, state EITC and adequate minimum wage work to strengthen families, and boost the economy

North Carolina’s working families face stagnant wages and rising costs for basic necessities like housing, child care, and transportation.

According to a new report from the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities, adopting a state EITC, to complement the federal credit and strengthening the state’s minimum wage will boost incomes for families that work low-wage jobs. In tandem, these policy tools have an especially positive impact on the financial well-being of families that struggle to make ends meet.

A few findings from the report:

  • Wages remain largely stagnant. Although productivity has increased markedly, low-wage workers have seen negligent gains in income over the past four decades. While the wealthiest have enjoyed the benefits of economic growth, low and middle-income workers have not.
  • Raising minimum wage and adopting state EITC work to address this income inequality, and reduce poverty among children. EITC is one of the most effective tools to lift working families and children out of poverty, keeping 5.7 million out of poverty. The federal minimum wage, used as a guide for states, has not kept pace with the rising cost of living. Increasing the minimum wage to $15 over the next five years would positively impact the ability of 28.1 million workers to cover the costs of day-to-day life.
  • Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have already enacted the EITC, and are experiencing its benefits, while 21 states are on pace to raise minimum wage in 2019.
  • Together, these policies reach overlapping but different populations, and allow the public and private sectors to share the cost.

A complimentary report from the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities highlights the positive economic impact of adopting a state EITC, focusing on the workforce, tax, and anti-poverty implications of the tax credit.

The report finds that adopting a state EITC improves the future economic prospects of children in claiming families, helps those families cover costs associated with continued work, like childcare and transportation, and encourages lowest-earning families to work more hours. A state EITC would also help offset the increase tax burden low and middle-income families bear in relation to wealthier tax payers.

Proposals have been introduced in the North Carolina House and Senate to establish a state EITC.  Given this emerging research and the challenges facing working families in our state, let’s hope both get a hearing soon.

Heba Atwa is a policy advocate for the N.C. Justice Center’s Budget & Tax Center.

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy

Burr, Tillis, help Senate confirm true extremist to nation’s second highest court

Sen. Richard Burr

Sen. Thom Tillis

It’s easy to become numb to the steady parade of extreme reactionaries that the Trump administration continues to install in offices of great responsibility, but here’s one that folks ought to take notice of. Today, the United States Senate approved Trump’s nomination of Neomi Rao to serve as a member of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit — the court generally recognized as the nation’s second highest. Rao takes the slot vacated by Brett Kavanaugh when he ascended to the Supreme Court. North Carolina’s Richard Burr and Thom Tillis both voted “yes” on the nomination.

Check out what the nonpartisan court watchers at the Alliance for Justice had to say about today’s vote and Rao’s abhorrently extreme views:

“The Senate voted today to confirm Neomi Rao for Brett Kavanaugh’s old seat on the D.C. Circuit over the objections of advocates and communities representing millions of Americans, including sexual assault survivors, people of color, LGBTQ people, women, and people with disabilities. Rao has blamed sexual assault survivors for being attacked, shamed women for seeking equality in the workplace, belittled the fight for racial justice, and demeaned LGBTQ people. She has proven her willingness to put her dangerous rhetoric into policy time and time again during her tenure at OIRA, rolling back public protections for these communities, the environment, immigrants, and more. She has made clear she wants to use the courts to weaken protections for health and safety, workers, and consumers. Neomi Rao is unfit to serve for a lifetime on the federal bench, but Senate Republicans strong-armed members of their own party to confirm her anyway. With this vote, they have proven that they will go to outrageous lengths to pack our courts with more of Trump’s abhorrent judicial nominees.”

And this is from the good people at the Center for American Progress:

“President Donald Trump and the Senate majority are trying to pack the courts with yet another narrow-minded, partisan judge who will put the interests of big business and the wealthy before those of everyone else. While serving as Trump’s regulatory czar, Neomi Rao signed off again and again on regulations that give powerful corporations special breaks at the expense of people’s health and safety. She has also shown a disturbing bias against victims of sexual assault and has an unacceptable history of disparaging women’s rights.

But this is about more than just one judge; it’s about the whole conservative court-packing scheme playing out before our eyes. The Senate majority refused to confirm scores of federal judges in the last two years of the Obama administration and is now changing the rules to fill those stolen seats as fast as humanly possible. Conservatives have cut home-state senators out of the process, ignored negative ratings from the American Bar Association, and rubber-stamped judges without looking closely at their records. Now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is trying to put the process on steroids by changing the rules for district court judges. Court-packing is happening right now. And if we do nothing, it’s going to have consequences for an entire generation. We need to fight for a fair-minded judiciary that works for all Americans, not just the wealthy few.”

All in all, it’s a truly sad day for the country.

Commentary

Brief “must see” video explains why NC must expand Medicaid, close the coverage gap

If you haven’t already checked it out, please take a few minutes to watch and share this powerful video from the North Carolina Justice Center’s Health Advocacy Project entitled “Voices of Uninsured North Carolinians: Expand Medicaid.”

Education

Gov. Cooper’s spending plan would phase out school voucher program

Gov. Roy Cooper’s biennium spending plan calls for phasing out the controversial and underutilized “Opportunity Scholarships” created to help defray the cost of private schools for low-income families.

Cooper made a similar proposal last year that never gained traction.

Under his current plan, recipients would continue to receive vouchers of up to $4,200 as long as they are eligible but no new scholarships would be awarded starting in fiscal year 2019-20.

Funding for the program would be reduced gradually and eventually phased out.

Data from the North Carolina Education Assistance Authority (NCEAA) shows that the Opportunity Scholarship program was over-funded by approximately $16.8 million in fiscal year 2017-18.

The state appropriated $44.8 million to subsidize tuition costs for students attending private schools but issued only $28.1 million.

State Budget Director Charlie Perusse said Tuesday the proposal reflects the governor’s belief that “public money should go to public schools.”

Perusse made his comments after a joint legislative meeting Tuesday to discuss the governor’s education budget priorities.

State Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who co-chairs the House Education Committee, said he will oppose efforts to end the voucher program.

“We’ve got too many kids across this state, particularly in the under-served areas, who truly need an option to improve things for themselves,” Horn said.

Horn acknowledged the state needs to reevaluate how it allocates the money in the wake of reports showing  that the program has been over-funded.

He also said the state must rethink guaranteed funding increases for the voucher program. Funding for the program is set to increase by $10 million per year through fiscal year 2027-28.

“I’m generally not happy with automatic growth because I want to see results,” Horn said.

Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC) said Cooper’s proposal sends the wrong message to low-income families.

“It’s disappointing, though not surprising, that [Gov.] Roy Cooper would once again prioritize a one-size-fits-all education system ahead of low-income families by attacking the very program providing thousands of North Carolina students equal access to a quality education,” said PEFNC President Mike Long.

There were 7,766 new applications for grants as of March 7, according to the NCAEE website. The deadline to apply is June 1.

Critics of “Opportunity Scholarships” contend there’s no evidence that students receiving them perform better. They also complain the program takes money from public schools, promotes schools segregation and lacks academic accountability.

The Public School Forum of North Carolina, a Raleigh-based nonpartisan organization that focuses on improving educational outcomes for North Carolina’s children, has called for a moratorium on increased funding to the program until lawmakers pass legislation that provides more “robust” financial oversight and evidence that students who receive the vouchers are performing better academically in private school settings.