Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

U.S. Supreme Court won’t wade into partisan gerrymandering; NC 2016 congressional map stands

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.

“The initial difficulty in settling on a ‘clear, manageable and politically neutral’ test for fairness is that it is not even clear what fairness looks like in this context,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the 5-4 opinion. “There is a large measure of ‘unfairness’ in any winner-take-all system.

“Any judicial decision on what is ‘fair’ in this context would be an ‘unmoored determination’ of the sort characteristic of a political question beyond the competence of the federal courts.”

The 5-4 opinion along party lines drives a nail into the coffin of an issue that has long plagued North Carolina and other state legislatures that use political data as a major consideration in the redistricting process to entrench its political party in power.

Attorneys argued the sibling cases at the high court in March, Rucho v. Common Cause and Rucho v. League of Women Voters, in March, but partisan gerrymandering has been an ongoing battle in North Carolina for years. The nonjusticiable ruling also applies to the Democratic partisan gerrymandering case from Maryland, Benisek v. Lamone.

Today’s outcome has been described by voting rights advocates and attorneys arguing against partisan gerrymandering as the worst possible outcome for democracy.

All four Democrat-appointed justices dissented in the opinion, which Justice Elena Kagan wrote.

“Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one,” she wrote. “The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections.”

Partisan gerrymandering also is being challenged in the state courts – Common Cause v. Lewis is set for trial July 15. If the case makes it up to the state Supreme Court, there is still a chance partisan gerrymandering could be outlawed in North Carolina.

This is a breaking news story. You can read an updated version here.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Democracy NC students lobby legislature for change: ‘We care about the right to vote’

College students working as part of the students’ Democracy Summer internship program with voting rights group Democracy North Carolina launched a “For The People” Campaign on Wednesday to call for pro-democracy reforms. (Photo by Aditi Kharod)

 

On Wednesday morning, a group of summer interns with Democracy NC gathered in front of the legislative building to roll out their “For the People” campaign.

The students encouraged North Carolina citizens to contact their lawmakers in support of a variety of pro-democracy reforms, including flexible early voting, nonpartisan redistricting, and increasing access to voting.

The group specifically called for the repeal of Senate Bill 325, passed in June of 2018, which limits early voting site hours.

“We know that if Early Voting flexibility and access isn’t restored now, alongside the removal of the new strict photo ID requirement to vote, it could mean a ‘recipe for disaster’ for North Carolina voters like me in 2020,” said Gaby Romero, a student at Appalachian State University in Boone. “For voters in rural western North Carolina — from all parties — these attacks shut them out of the most important form of participation in a democracy.”

The college students shared stories from their campuses about how gerrymandering and limits to voting access have hurt young voters, and laid out a multi-part agenda with the goal of lobbying lawmakers to use current proposals to prevent confusion and chaos for voters ahead of next year’s elections.

“We’re here to say that we care about our rights. That we care about the right to vote,” said Tyler Walker, an activist who works with Democracy NC in Winston-Salem. “Any barrier to voting is a threat to your personal freedoms. Any barrier to voting is a threat to you directly. It is a threat to your civil rights. It is a threat to your human rights. It is a threat to your ability to exercise your right to vote, to exercise the freedoms you believe in. It is a threat. And I’m here to tell the legislature today that we will not be threatened.”

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Tomorrow: The wait will be over for SCOTUS rulings on gerrymandering, Census

The wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on partisan gerrymandering will be over tomorrow.

Chief Justice John Roberts announced Wednesday the high court’s final five opinions would come down at 10 a.m. Thursday — they include the highly anticipated North Carolina sibling cases on partisan gerrymandering (are political considerations in the redistricting process ever unconstitutional?) and the case on the legality of the 2020 Census citizenship question.

Both are cases that affect the state and have potential to affect the entire nation, but the latter became a little more complicated after new evidence of racial intent was brought to light from the Hofeller files — documents that GOP renowned mapmaker Thomas Hofeller’s daughter turned over after his death to the plaintiffs in a state partisan gerrymandering case.

The sibling cases are Rucho v. Common Cause and Rucho v. League of Women Voters; the citizenship case is Commerce Department v. New York. The other cases the court is expected to rule on are Benisek v. Lamone, the Maryland partisan gerrymandering case, Mitchell v. Wisconsin and Carpenter v. Murphy.

There have been 64 opinions from the high court this term, many of which have included interesting lineups. Kimberly Robinson, of Bloomberg Law, reported on Twitter this morning that every Republican-appointed justice on the court has crossed over this term to give Democratic-appointed justices a win in closely-divided cases.

Stay tuned Thursday morning for the final Supreme Court opinions this term. Follow reporter Melissa Boughton on Twitter for live updates as the opinions are announced.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Voting rights groups approve of new (but old) Wake districts, disapprove of process

 

Voting rights groups commended lawmakers for approving a redistricting plan Monday in four Wake County House districts that reverts them back to their configuration as they were drawn in 2011, but also criticized them for redrawing the districts in the first place.

Lawmakers initially redrew the districts, House District 36, 37, 40 and 41 as part of a remedial process to fix racially gerrymandered districts. A three-judge panel, however, later ruled the specific Wake districts that were changed as part of that process violated the North Carolina Constitution’s prohibition on mid-decade redistricting — lawmakers didn’t have the authority to redraw the districts while fixing other districts.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) represented plaintiffs in N.C. NAACP v. Lewis, the case that led to the most recent redraw.

“For this entire decade, Wake County voters have been consistently denied the ability to vote in constitutional districts,” said Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney at SCSJ. “In 2011, they were forced into racially gerrymandered districts. Then in 2017, lawmakers tried to skirt the state constitution for partisan gain. The districts enacted today could and should have been put in place two years ago.

Plaintiffs in N.C. NAACP v. Lewis included the N.C. State Conference of NAACP Branches, the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, Democracy North Carolina, the A. Philip Randolph Institute of North Carolina, and four Wake County voters.

The redistricting plan enacted Monday was drawn by a court-appointed expert in 2017 as part of the remedial proceedings of a federal redistricting case, Covington v. North Carolina, in which the court found that 28 state legislative districts drawn in 2011 were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.

The court’s map-drawer respected the North Carolina constitutional prohibition on mid-decade redistricting, but the legislature objected to the federal court’s implementation of maps designed to comply with state law, arguing only a state court could do that. Ultimately, it took another lawsuit, N.C. NAACP v. Lewis, to order the legislature to enact a redistricting plan that did not violate the North Carolina constitutional prohibition on mid-decade redistricting.

“The adoption of the special master’s districts would not have been necessary if the legislature hadn’t engaged in gerrymandering in the first place, and if North Carolina instead had in place a system of nonpartisan redistricting,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause. “We call on state lawmakers to enact lasting reform this session that permanently takes redistricting power out of the hands of legislators and entrusts it with an independent body that will draw our voting maps in a nonpartisan fashion, with full transparency and robust public input. It’s time to end gerrymandering for good and establish fair redistricting now.”

Common Cause is involved in a state court case over partisan gerrymandering in the redistricting process. The group and SCSJ are also involved in the U.S. Supreme Court case over the same issue, which is expected to announce its opinion later this week.

A half-dozen bills have been filed this legislative session that would establish nonpartisan redistricting for North Carolina. However, legislative leaders have not yet allowed any of these proposals to be given a vote or even a hearing, despite broad, bipartisan support among North Carolina voters for redistricting reform.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Hofeller files: Lawmakers deny mapmaking misconduct in latest court filing

GOP legislative leaders are denying “inflammatory allegations” in their latest court filing in a state partisan gerrymandering case that they had a voting map mostly completed before beginning a public redistricting process to remedy racial gerrymandering.

The motion was filed Monday to ask a three-judge panel for direction after the plaintiffs in Common Cause v. Lewis filed a motion alleging that lawmakers lied to a federal court to ask for more time to draw the 2011 North Carolina legislative maps.

“One might expect that, with such a bald allegation of misconduct by elected leaders, plaintiffs would have some strong support for it, some smoking gun, or admission,” states the motion filed by the legislative defendants. “But, in fact, they have nothing of the sort. They present no email or other correspondence between Dr. Thomas Hofeller, the legislature’s map-drawing consultant, and any legislator indicating that any legislator knew of Dr. Hofeller’s map-drawing activities as of June 2017.”

The plaintiff’s cite Hofeller’s files — which were turned over to them after his death by his daughter — but they do not include the specific evidence to which they referred.

The legislative defendants state that they believe the plaintiffs in the state case put their false allegations into a court filing to score political points. They ask the court to order the plaintiffs to be divested of the Hofeller files, assess the degree of harm present in the case and possibly disqualify their attorneys.

“It is the Court’s role to take charge of this proceeding and the lawyers practicing before it,” the document states. “The Legislative Defendants therefore agree that direction is appropriate. Plaintiffs are using this proceeding as a platform for baseless political invective. And they are in possession of documents belonging to others and containing express privilege designations through apparently unethical means.”

There has not yet been a hearing scheduled in the case, but the three-judge panel has been asked for guidance from both sides. Read the full motion from the legislative defendants below.



Response to Motion for Direction Common Cause v Lewis June 6 2019 (Text)