RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — In another remapping decision along partisan leanings, the North Carolina Supreme Court has agreed to speed up arguments on further challenges to the boundaries for the state's legislative seats and congressional districts.
By a 4-3 ruling with registered Democrats in the majority, the justices granted a request by Common Cause to accelerate the redistricting proceedings before them. The group is fighting the state House and Senate maps approved by the General Assembly in February. Oral arguments will be held in early or mid-October, read Thursday's order signed by Senior Associate Justice Robin Hudson.
The order said specifically that the court didn't address a recent request by Republican legislators to end its appeal of the congressional district boundaries, which a state trial court drew and adopted for use this year only.
But the order said expediting all redistricting appeals was based on “the great public interest in the subject matter of this case, the importance of the issues to the constitutional jurisprudence of this state, and the need to reach a final resolution on the merits at the earliest possible opportunity.”
It's too late for any decision after those oral arguments to alter the district lines for this year's elections, which are already happening under the challenged maps. Any ruling could clarify further how partisan bias is avoided in mapmaking and force the legislature to redraw new General Assembly maps that would be used for the remainder of this decade. A new congressional map for the 2024 elections already will be needed.
Associate Justice Tamara Barringer, opposing Thursday’s order for the court’s three Republican justices, wrote that it made no sense to speed up the process. Any required map redraws for the 2024 elections wouldn’t need to be in place until candidate filing begins in December 2023, she said.
“Common Cause fails to explain how an expedited decision from this court will make any meaningful difference on the legislature’s ability to comply with a deadline that is more than 16 months away,” Barringer wrote.
With Hudson retiring from the court at the end of the year, and Democratic Associate Justice Sam Ervin IV up for reelection, it’s possible a GOP majority would have heard the case if arguments had waited until early 2023.
The contested lines replaced other sets of boundaries that the GOP-controlled House and Senate drew last fall based on 2020 census population changes. The Supreme Court, in an identical 4-3 ruling, struck down those first batch of maps. The court called the lines illegal partisan gerrymanders that failed to treat voters who back Democrats fairly and told legislators to try again.
A panel of three trial judges upheld the replacement maps for the 170 legislative districts drawn by lawmakers, but retooled the second congressional map. The state Supreme Court refused to delay their use with this year's elections.
The appeals didn't end, as Common Cause and the other plaintiffs in redistricting lawsuits said the Senate map, or the district boundaries for both chambers, still harm Black votes and fail to fully give Democrats the chance at governing majorities. GOP legislative leaders appealed the interim congressional plan.
House Speaker Tim Moore, Senate leader Phil Berger and other GOP lawmakers asked July 13 to withdraw their congressional map appeal. Phil Strach, a lawyer for the Republicans, wrote there's no need to spend time and taxpayer dollars on boundaries that will be used in 2022 only.
But Narendra Ghosh, a lawyer representing some voters who are backed by a national Democratic redistricting group, argue the Republicans' dismissal request is “pure gamesmanship” designed to strengthen their position in upcoming U.S. Supreme Court arguments over the power of state courts to scrutinize congressional maps.
Last month, the nation's highest court agreed to hear the North Carolina Republicans' separate appeal of the map for the state’s 14 U.S. House seats. The U.S. justices could decide by next year whether state courts have authority to change the rules for federal elections and congressional redistricting plans.
Barringer criticized the refusal of her Democratic colleagues to grant the legislators' dismissal motion, adding that “the majority’s decision on both of these motions ... reeks of judicial activism and should deeply trouble every citizen of this state."
In contrast to the legislature’s original congressional map, which likely would have resulted in Republicans winning 10 of the 14 seats, the interim plan would give Democrats a reasonable opportunity to win seven of the seats.