U.S. District Court Judge James Wynn scolded state legislative attorneys at a hearing in Greensboro Thursday, saying that weighing the costs and benefits of redistricting should no longer be their concern. Now was the time to act, and they needed to stop dragging their feet.
“We want the legislature to do its job,” he said. “We are in the remedy phase now.”
Wynn is a member of the three-judge panel that found twenty-eight state House and Senate districts racially gerrymandered last year and instructed lawmakers to redraw the unconstitutional maps and to hold special elections. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision on racial gerrymanders but remanded the case on the issue of special elections.
Senior deputy attorney general Alexander Peters, who represents the state and the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, did not take a position on a redrawing timeline or a special election, but other attorneys defending the legislature’s actions strongly opposed both the plaintiffs’ proposed two-week timeline for redistricting and a special election ahead of the next legislative session.
When Judge Catherine Eagles asked legislative attorney Phil Strach—who is married to Kim Strach, the executive director of the State Board of Elections—why legislators are advocating for such a drawn-out process, he said the legislature’s timeline prioritizes public input, whereas the plaintiffs’ request would compress time for public hearings.
“Well, that’s your own fault,” Eagles retorted.
Eagles and Wynn reminded Strach and his team that legislators could and should have acted on redrawing the maps last year. “You had to have known the case would be affirmed [by the Supreme Court],” Wynn added.
Attorney Anita Earls of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, who is representing the plaintiffs, pointed out that remedial redistricting is a simpler process than what occurs after each census, and that the sole purpose is to fix gerrymandered districts, not revise the state’s map. Earls said the judges must weigh the value of the proposed public hearings against the value of candidates of all parties knowing what district they can run in and of citizens’ capacity for civic engagement.
“[Legislators] completely control their calendar and what they do and don’t do,” Earls said. “It’s not inadvertent. It’s not an accident.”
Earls’s cocounsel, Edwin Speas, called Republicans’ delay “a dereliction of duty.”
In the meantime, both Earls and Speas say the situation calls into question the legislature’s ability to do its work and the integrity of the laws it writes. Speas also suggested that “the state legislature may be the most illegally constituted body in the United States, demonstrating a lack of respect for the rights of citizens and for the limitations of that body.”
Judges took testimony and arguments under advisement instead of ruling from the bench.
When the state argued that holding a special election would be costly and that voter turnout would be low, Earls countered that the real “disruption is in not redrawing maps and not holding special elections.”
In a press conference, Earls responded to a question about the cost of special elections by asking, “What price do we put on democracy, and what price do we put on the rights of the voters who’ve been assigned to districts on the basis of their race?”