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NC Supreme Court hears redistricting case arguments

State Supreme Court justices were asked in oral arguments Wednesday to declare that redistricting plans the Republicans devised are so skewed that they violate voters’ constitutional rights, while lawyers for GOP lawmakers argued that redistricting should be left to the legislature.

Common Cause, the League of Conservation Voters, and a group of voters backed by the National Redistricting Foundation are challenging state Republican plans for new congressional and legislative districts as extreme partisan gerrymanders. The plans dilute Black voting power, plaintiffs argue, by reconfiguring districts where Black voters have been able to elect the candidates of their choice.

A trial court upheld the redistricting plans, leading to the challengers’ appeal.

In the lead-up Wednesday’s arguments, three of the justices, Republican Phil Berger Jr. and Democrats Anita Earls and Sam Ervin IV were asked to recuse themselves. None did, so the case will be decided by the full court, where Democrats hold a 4-3 majority.

Attorney Stanton Jones

The GOP redistricting plans “violate the fundamental rights of millions of North Carolinians,” said Stanton Jones, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

In a partisan gerrymander, leaders of the party in power sort the minority party’s voters into districts that minimize their influence, effectively predetermining the outcome of elections and entrenching the majority in power, he said.

“All three of the challenged maps here are extreme gerrymanders that violate the fundamental rights of millions of North Carolinians, and this court has the power and duty to say so,” Jones said.

Challengers whose math and redistricting experts testified last month that computers could rarely, if ever, produce redistricting plans that are as heavily skewed to Republicans’ advantage as the maps legislative Republicans approved.

Chief Justice Newby

Republican Chief Justice Paul Newby asked plaintiffs’ lawyers if they were arguing for proportionality – where the percentage of votes a party gets determines the number of seats – and how much partisanship in redistricting is allowable. He noted that Republicans won majorities in the House and Senate in 2010 using maps Democrats drew, and that the state constitution gives the redistricting responsibilities to the legislature.

Zachary Schauf, a lawyer representing the League of Conservation Voters, said they weren’t arguing for proportionality, but said the gerrymandered maps subvert the will of the people.

Lawyers for Republican lawmakers who drew the plans said that redistricting questions are outside state court jurisdiction, and the sections of the constitution on which the challengers base their claims do not apply to drawing district lines.

“In our opinion, the court would be engaging in policy making,” said Phil Strach, a lawyer representing GOP lawmakers.

Justice Anita Earls, a Democrat, noted that a trial court in 2019 struck down GOP redistricting plans, and the state Supreme Court in 2002 used the constitution’s Equal Protection Clause to require single-member districts, and required districts be compact.

Justice Anita Earls

States must draw plans for new congressional and legislative districts at least once after every census to account for population shifts. Republicans drew new districts for North Carolina congressional seats that would give GOP candidates at least 10 of 14 seats. The new state House and Senate districts would give Republicans the chance to win supermajorities in each chamber that would endure even in good election years for Democrats, plaintiffs’ experts testified last month.

Republican legislators said they did not rely on partisan or racial data as they created the plans, and did all their work in public, and did not use consultants.  But the House redistricting leader, Rep. Destin Hall, testified that he asked staff member to create “concept maps” that he referenced as he created the new House districts. The “concept maps” were created outside public view.

Several incumbent Black legislators would have a hard time winning reelection under the new districts. An analysis by an expert who testified for Republican legislators last month showed that Sens. Toby Fitch of Wilson and Ernestine Bazemore of Bertie County, both Democrats, would have no chance of winning reelection in their redrawn districts.

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