RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s Supreme Court returned to the state’s recent divisive round of redistricting on Tuesday, as justices heard further challenges to General Assembly and congressional district lines getting used for next month’s elections.
The state’s highest court listened to arguments from lawyers speaking for advocacy groups and voters who filed and initially won months ago partisan gerrymandering lawsuits, and for Republican legislative leaders who drew maps last year based on census figures that were struck down.
These legal parties still aren’t happy with redrawn boundaries and want more alterations. The litigants blame a panel of trial judges that handled redistricting litigation last winter for failing to comply with standards set by the state Supreme Court or federal law to prevent illegal partisan and racial gerrymandering.
The justices didn’t say when they would rule. It’s too late for any ensuing decision by the Supreme Court to affect this year’s elections. Mail-in absentee balloting for November began a month ago.
But the opinions could inform lawmakers about how partisan bias must be avoided in mapmaking, and could force the legislature to again redraw General Assembly maps for the remainder of this decade. A new congressional map for the 2024 elections already will be needed.
The lawsuit's plaintiffs, which include the N.C. League of Conservation Voters and Common Cause, won in February a landmark state Supreme Court ruling.
In a 4-3 decision, the court’s Democratic justices declared that partisan gerrymandering violates the state constitution and that the congressional and legislative lines approved by the GOP-controlled legislature last year unfairly favored Republicans. The three Republican justices said the majority had gone on a power trip and usurped the legislature’s responsibility to draw maps.
But the plaintiffs’ attorneys said Tuesday the state House and Senate district maps that the legislature redrew based on that ruling --- and the justices said could be used for this year’s election -- still fall short.
The legislative seat boundaries also keep discriminating against Black voters, said Hilary Klein, a lawyer representing Common Cause.
Klein and another attorney said legislative maps remained skewed toward Republicans and fail to give Democrats the same chance as the GOP to win governing majorities should they receive similar statewide voter support as Republicans -- a standard set by the state Supreme Court in February.
“The trial court just didn’t address that standard. And that’s a legal error,” Elisabeth Theodore, an attorney representing Democratic and unaffiliated voters, said during arguments livestreamed from the old Chowan County Courthouse in Edenton, where the justices held proceedings this week.
GOP legislators are aiming this fall to win veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate. The plaintiffs want the court to reverse the decision of a panel of trial judges that upheld those boundaries and order that their own maps be implemented for the 2024 elections.
The Republicans argue the same trial judges got it wrong when they rejected the replacement map for U.S. House districts and drew their own temporary plan for this year.
Phil Strach, a lawyer for the GOP leaders, said they had followed the Supreme Court’s suggestions for legislative and congressional maps on what mathematical calculations and political standards could be followed to rein in partisan gerrymandering.
But while the judges accepted the measurements for the General Assembly maps, they rejected calculations originating from the same modelling for the congressional maps and accepted other calculations instead, Strach said.
Strach said the plaintiffs want to use the state Supreme Court’s partisan gerrymandering ruling to “transform redistricting into a game of gotcha by litigants and the courts” without giving legislators a clear method to draw lawful maps.
“Respectfully, your honors, what we would submit is this is no way to conduct constitutional maps,” he told the justices earlier.
North Carolina Republicans currently hold eight of the state’s 13 U.S. House seats. The state gained a 14th seat following the census. Under the temporary plan the judges approved, Democrats could win as many as seven next month.
The congressional map appeal has a twist: Republican legislative leaders attempted in July to withdraw its appeal, because they say it's not worth spending time and taxpayer dollars on the matter when state law already requires them to redraw a U.S. House map in 2024.
The state Supreme Court still hasn’t yet ruled on that withdrawal. The plaintiffs want the justices to force GOP lawmakers to see through the appeal, saying a dismissal would strengthen Republicans in an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case involving North Carolina legislators that challenges the power of state courts to scrutinize congressional maps.