This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch.
The state’s highest court on Wednesday will consider whether new legislative and congressional districts are so severely skewed to help Republicans win that they violate the North Carolina constitution.
The hearing comes amid a tumultuous few months that have brought demands for three of the seven justices to recuse themselves, a GOP attempt to change the primary date, and a veto of that proposed change.
None of the three justices targeted in recusal motions—Republican Phil Berger Jr., and Democrats Anita Earls and Sam Ervin IV—are stepping away, so the full court of four Democrats and three Republicans will hear arguments via online conference. The arguments will stream at 9:30 a.m. on the Supreme Court’s YouTube channel.
Under state law, if the court throws out the plans, the legislature will have two weeks to come up with new ones.
Challengers are suing over districts that mathematicians and redistricting experts say are so skewed that they rarely, if ever, can be reproduced by computers. The GOP congressional plan gives Republican candidates an advantage in 10 of the state’s 14 districts. Republicans would have a chance to win supermajorities in the legislature and hold them even in good election years for Democrats, experts said in trial court. The new districts would also make it harder or impossible for some incumbent Black legislators to win re-election.
Republican legislators defending the districts argue that the state constitution does not put limits on partisan redistricting as the challengers claim.
The challengers lost in trial court last month. A three-judge panel said the GOP plans were the result of “intentional pro-Republican partisan redistricting,” but the judges also said they couldn’t do anything about it.
Three lawsuits challenging the maps—one by the NC League of Conservation Voters, one by Common Cause, and another by a group of voters backed by the National Redistricting Foundation—have been combined.
Lawyers for the challengers argued in court papers that the three-judge panel was wrong. Courts can determine when redistricting plans are so partisan that they violate voters’ constitutional rights, the lawyers wrote.
A lawyer representing the group of National Redistricting Foundation-backed voters, Narendra Ghosh, wrote that the redistricting plans violate the state constitution’s Free Elections Clause through manipulation of district lines to predetermine the outcome of elections.
Legislators achieved a congressional plan where Republicans would win at least 10 of 14 seats by “packing and cracking” Democratic voters.
The state’s most populous counties—Wake, Mecklenburg, and Guilford—are Democratic. The congressional plan splits each county among three districts, dividing them more than necessary.
Guilford County is divided into three pieces, and all the congressional districts that contain parts of the county are designed to elect Republicans.
Drawing districts that entrench Republicans and defy popular will violates the Free Elections Clause, Ghosh wrote.
Stephen Feldman, representing the League of Conservation Voters, wrote that the redistricting plans dilute Black voters’ power, depriving them of “equal legislative representation.” The state constitution’s Free Elections and Equal Protection clauses protect against minority vote dilution, he wrote.
Hilary H. Klein, a lawyer representing Common Cause, wrote that legislators destroyed “crossover districts” where white voters join with Black voters to elect candidates Black voters choose.
Phillip Strach, a lawyer representing Republican map-drawers, wrote in court papers that it is not up to judges to resolve questions of partisan redistricting. The state constitution puts the legislature in control of redistricting, and the challengers want the courts to act as a political body, he argued.
The National Republican Congressional Committee filed an argument supporting Republican lawmakers, and Governor Roy Cooper and state Attorney General Josh Stein, both Democrats, filed an argument supporting the challengers.
Lawyers for the challengers have proposed that if the Supreme Court throws out the redistricting plans that it chose a redistricting expert to either review the legislature’s next attempt, work with legislators to create new maps, or prepare alternatives if the legislature’s next set of plans is unconstitutional.
Strach said the court should reject that idea and allow elections to proceed under the challenged maps.
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