This story was originally published online at NC Policy Watch. 

State courts are wading into the bare-knuckle fight over new congressional and legislative districts that Republicans say are just fine but Democrats and outside evaluators argue are heavily skewed to the GOP’s advantage. 

Three lawsuits have been filed against the redistricting plans.

The NC League of Conservation Voters is challenging the congressional and legislative districts, saying the plans are unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders and dilute minority votes.

North Carolina voters tend to split their choices about evenly between Democrats and Republicans, but Republicans will win nine or 10 of the state’s 14 congressional seats even if voter preferences shift significantly toward Democrats, the lawsuit says.  

Civil rights groups are also suing. The NC NAACP/Common Cause of North Carolina lawsuit claims the state house and senate maps were drawn improperly, because Republicans did not consider whether they should create districts that comply with the federal Voting Rights Act.  

And a group of voters backed by the National Redistricting Foundation claim in their lawsuit that the congressional plan is “an extreme and brazen partisan gerrymander” of the kind that forced the legislature to redraw district lines in 2019. 

Last week, justices on North Carolina’s Supreme Court ordered that the state’s primary elections move from March 8 to May 17 in order to give the court time to hear the complaints. The trial will run from January 6 through January 8, with a verdict from the court scheduled to come down on January 11.

These legal challenges are familiar territory for North Carolina. Between 2011 and 2019, courts required state lawmakers to redraw district lines several times to correct racial or partisan gerrymanders.  

Attorneys in the most recent redistricting lawsuits asked to speed up the appeals process by skipping the state court of appeals and taking their cases directly to the state’s highest court.  

Governor Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein, both Democrats, asked the state Supreme Court last week if it could support the requests for “discretionary review,” or to bypass the court of appeals, in the cases filed by the NC League of Conservation Voters and the National Redistricting Foundation–backed plaintiffs.  

Republicans adopted gerrymandered districts “improperly entrenching themselves and their political party in office,” their court brief says.  

“This case raises profound issues of constitutional law that go to the heart of our State’s ability to function as a democracy,” the Cooper-Stein brief says. “Partisan gerrymandering, exacerbated by today’s technology, allows legislative majorities to entrench themselves in power without regard to the popular will. It prevents the people from meaningfully exercising their sovereign authority to select their representatives, and to thereby ensure that the State’s policies reflect the views of the people as a whole.” 

Attorneys in the lawsuits filed by the National Redistricting Foundation and civil rights groups have asked that Justice Phil Berger Jr. be disqualified from participating in the case. Justice Berger Jr.’s father, senate leader Phil Berger Sr. (R–30th District), is a named defendant in redistricting lawsuits.  

Motions last week to have Justice Berger disqualified mirror a similar request made by plaintiffs in a voter ID case pending before the court in which Senator Berger is also a defendant. The request that Berger and Justice Tamara Barringer, a former state senator, step down has prompted a sometimes heated public debate over judicial conflicts of interest.  

Senator Berger is often named in lawsuits challenging legislative actions by virtue of his position as senate leader. But in their motion, lawyers for the civil rights groups say that Senator Berger is more than a nominal defendant, having appointed the redistricting committee and helped pick lawyers representing legislators.  

“We believe that this is an exceptional case where it’s not a mere formality,” Hilary Harris Klein said in an interview. Klein is a lawyer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice who is representing the civil rights groups.  

The North Carolina Judicial Code of Conduct says judges should recuse themselves when they are related to a party in a case.  

 “We believe that is a clear conflict,” Klein said.  

Klein said that the recusal request does not have to delay consideration of their case.  

The civil rights groups are suing over legislative districts, claiming that Republican mapmakers did not consider a need to draw districts that comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, as a state Supreme Court ruling from the early 2000s requires.  

In redistricting committee meetings this year, Republicans said they did not use racial or partisan data in creating the district plans.  

Phillip Strach, a lawyer for Republican legislators, said in a hearing last month that GOP lawmakers did comply with that earlier court ruling and that Voting Rights Act districts “were not required because of the long litigation history that preceded this redistricting.”

“Of paramount importance is that voters, when they go to the polls, are able to exercise their rights on equal terms,” Klein said.  

Independent evaluators, including the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, have determined the plans skew in favor of Republicans.  

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave each of the three redistricting plans an “F” for partisan fairness.  

In a court hearing earlier this month, a lawyer representing Republican lawmakers said the maps look the way they do because Republican voters are spread across the state, while Democratic voters are concentrated in higher-population counties.

A lawyer for the National Redistricting Foundation–backed plaintiffs countered that the congressional plan intentionally packs Democrats into a handful of districts and parcels them out to other districts with heavy Republican majorities where they don’t have a chance of influencing election outcomes.  

Voters in the state’s largest, heavily Democratic counties, Wake, Mecklenburg, and Guilford, are divided among three districts. Guilford does not have a self-contained congressional district. Its voters are split among three districts that all have Republican majorities, the lawsuit says.  

The League of Conservation Voters lawsuit asks the court to order the state to use its proposed maps, produced by computer algorithms, if the legislature does not redraw districts in time for the 2022 primary. 

One of the reasons the league offered its own maps was to show that the legislature could have created fairer maps while complying with traditional redistricting principles.  

“The General Assembly cannot claim that North Carolina’s political geography or state law compelled the skewed results the enacted plans yield,” the lawsuit says. 

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