Conclusion of partisan gerrymandering trial ‘key first step’ to getting fair maps

A Wake County Superior Court three-judge panel is deliberating now after a two-week trial about whether North Carolina’s 2017 legislative maps are unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Two weeks of evidence about whether North Carolina’s 2017 legislative maps were intentionally gerrymandered for partisan purposes ended Friday, and the plaintiffs in the case plan to ask a three-judge panel not to give lawmakers another round at the drawing board.

“It’s because of this series of what we believe to be violations of the public’s trust that we’re going to ask this court to not only strike these maps, but to not give the legislature the opportunity to redraw them,” said Daniel Jacobson, an attorney for the plaintiffs in Common Cause v. Lewis.

All of the plaintiffs’ attorneys spoke briefly after the conclusion of the trial. Jacobson pointed out that the legislative defendants in the case did not successfully refute evidence they put on that the late GOP mapmaker, Thomas Hofeller, drew 95 percent of the Senate plan before the public redistricting process took place and 90 percent of the House plan.

An expert witness for legislative leaders tried to show that claim wasn’t true, but his analysis was so flawed, the court threw out his testimony relating to Hofeller’s draft maps and the legislature’s enacted maps.

Jacobson said legislators lied to a federal court about not having drawn the plans and convinced them not to hold a special election, then lied to the public about its redistricting process — the maps were nearly completed the whole time.

“The legislature simply cannot be trusted to again have another opportunity to draw these maps again, and the courts should do it itself,” he said.

Daniel Jacobson, an attorney for the plaintiffs in a partisan gerrymandering trial, said he plans to ask a court not to let North Carolina lawmakers draw another map if they prevail. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Lawmakers have denied lying to the federal court.

Phil Strach, an attorney for the legislative defendants in Common Cause did not comment Friday after the trial and instead referred questions to his clients.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore, Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) and Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell) did not respond to an email seeking either comment or the closing arguments Strach would have made (all parties agreed to waive closing). They did, however, send Strach’s closing arguments to other media outlets.

The legislative defendants’ last two expert witnesses, Michael Barber, a political scientist at Brigham Young University, and Thomas Brunell, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, tried to refute several of the plaintiffs’ expert reports.

Brunell said it was great so many scholars were weighing in, but noted that much of their relatively new research was not yet ready for “prime time.” He added that there was absolutely no way of knowing what was in Hofeller’s mind when he drew North Carolina’s maps, so it wouldn’t be possible to prove intent.

Thomas Brunell testified last week at a partisan gerrymandering trial on behalf of Republican legislative defendants. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

“There’s no way of knowing why it’s this way,” he said.

Barber spoke on the stand about how it would be difficult to measure North Carolina’s true electorate ideology, and that conclusions made by the plaintiffs’ experts about it were insufficient.

During cross examination, Barber was asked what he would tell a student if they asked if partisan gerrymandering was bad for American democracy. He responded that the issue is complicated and he would say there are a number of factors that go into such a conclusion.

When asked the same question about his response to an 8-year-0ld if they asked him if partisan gerrymandering was bad for democracy, Barber balked.

“I think this is a ridiculous question,” he said. “I don’t interact with a lot of 8-year-olds, so I’m not sure about their level of political information. I would probably tell the 8-year-old that there is interesting research in political science that they should read to assess these conclusions, and that when they’re grown up they should take my class.”

The plaintiffs’ attorneys criticized the legislative defendants’ defense after the trial.

“They didn’t have a single fact witness get up in trial and say, ‘we didn’t do it,'” said Stanton Jones. “No one came into court to deny that what happened here was that Dr. Hofeller, the mapmaker, working at the direction of the legislative leaders in the General Assembly, gerrymandered the map as best as he absolutely could to advantage Republicans and to minimize the representational rights of Democrats. No one came in to court over the past two weeks to deny that it’s exactly what happened, and it is.”

He added that none of the legislative defendants’ experts provided any evidence to show North Carolina’s 2017 legislative maps were anything other than extreme partisan gerrymanders.

“The Republican legislative leaders will predictably ask the courts of this state to do what the U.S. Supreme Court has recently done, which is to throw up its hands and to say ‘partisan gerrymandering in this extreme form may be unfair, it may be discriminatory, it may be anti-democratic, it may be unconstitutional, but we’re just not going to do anything about it,'” Jones said.

It could be weeks or even upward of a month or longer before the three-judge panel — Judges Paul Ridgeway, Alma Hinton and Joseph Crosswhite — make their decision in the case. Post-trial briefs are due Aug. 7.

Whatever the outcome in Wake County Superior Court, either losing party will almost certainly appeal to a higher court, and eventually, the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause North Carolina, hopes the state will finally be pushed into passing redistricting reform. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Bob Phillips, Executive Director of plaintiff and redistricting reform group Common Cause North Carolina, said he believes the partisan gerrymandering case to be the most consequential and significant redistricting trial in the history of the state.

“What’s at stake is ending partisan gerrymandering once and for all in North Carolina,” he said after the trial. “I personally believe we are on the path to doing that. And what’s at stake for every citizen in North Carolina is fair maps. That’s what we want. … This is a key first step.”

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