Republican legislative leaders are staying mum about a federal court ruling that requires them to submit new maps by September 1.
The date is almost three months in advance of the deadline they asked for, though the three-judge panel did deny a request for a special election – a win for GOP lawmakers who argued against such a request after delaying drawing new maps until the 11th hour.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore and Redistricting Committee chairmen Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) and Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell) have not responded to an email request seeking comment about the court’s timeline. They also have not released any public statements.
Democrats and advocates, on the other hand, have both commended and criticized the court’s ruling.
Democratic Leader Rep. Darren Jackson tweeted that he was disappointed that a super-majority achieved by use of unconstitutional and racially gerrymandered districts is allowed to continue through November 2018.
“And now a majority elected by the use of unconstitutional districts gets to redraw the districts. Isn’t that rewarding someone for cheating?,” he tweeted. “What’s more, majority gets chance to shore up or strengthen some Repub. districts where voters have moved into changing performance.”
Jackson pointed out that the unconstitutional maps were in place for six years and said it’s hard to argue that Republicans aren’t being rewarded for bad behavior.
Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Durham, Orange) tweeted that he was glad new maps were on the way and that he was OK with no special election because it gives Democrats more time to recruit candidates and prepare.
He also said that the timeline the court ordered is far from final – that if the courts reject the new maps and a special master gets involved, it could be close to the end of the year before final maps are unveiled.
National Democratic Redistricting Committee Chairman Eric Holder released a statement Tuesday in which he said that it’s time for the North Carolina to “clean up its act” and that the rest of the nation would be watching as lawmakers move forward with remedial redistricting.
“This ruling is a significant step towards fairer maps that better represent North Carolinians,” said Holder. “Now, the legislature should move forward with a fair and timely effort to protect the rights of North Carolina voters.”
The three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, which included James Wynn of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Catherine Eagles of the Middle District — both appointed by former President Barack Obama — and Thomas Schroeder of the Middle District, who was appointed by George W. Bush, was unanimous in its ruling.
“We also agree that constitutionally adequate districts should be enacted as quickly as possible to protect the rights of North Carolina citizens and to minimize any chilling effect on political participation attributable to the continued absence of a districting plan in the face of a finding of unconstitutional racial gerrymandering,” their order states.
The panel did not explain its reason for refusing to require special elections in the order that was released Monday night, but stated that there will be a forthcoming memorandum opinion with more details.
Wynn and Eagles both took Phil Strach, attorney for the legislative defendants, to task during the court hearing last week for lawmakers’ lack of action since their original 2016 order to draw new districts. Schroeder was not as critical of lawmakers but questioned why they needed so long correct the maps.
The federal panel initially found that 28 state House and Senate Districts were unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered and ordered that lawmakers correct the violation and hold a special election. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the panel’s finding but remanded the special election remedy back to the court for further consideration.
“We agree with Plaintiffs that the General Assembly already has had ample time to enact a remedial districting plan,” the unanimous order states. “Indeed, the General Assembly has been in session several times since the Court entered its Order directing the General Assembly to draw new districts in August 2016.”
The judges agreed with the legislature’s right to draw the new districts “in the first instance, if it will do so in a timely fashion.” They did not disagree with the legislative defendants in that there are benefits to a timeline that allows public input and engagement with opportunity for revision of the proposed maps.
“That being said, Legislative Defendants have offered no evidence to support their contention that they need three-and-a half more months to remedy the constitutional violations identified by this Court almost a year ago, nor have they offered any evidence that they have not begun to evaluate what the revised districts might look like,” the order states.
In addition to ordering new maps by September 1, the judges offered Republicans a 14-day extension if they meet certain criteria, including drawing and publicly disclosing the new maps by August 21.
The judges also waived a one-year residency requirement for candidates in affected districts planning to run for election in 2018.
The order states: “Any citizen having established their residence in a House or Senate district modified by the General Assembly under the remedial redistricting plans as of the closing day of the filing period for the 2018 election in that district, shall be qualified to serve as Senator or Representative if elected to that office, notwithstanding the requirement of Sections 6 and 7 of Article II of the North Carolina Constitution, which provide that each Senator and Representative, at the time of their election, shall have resided ‘in the district for which he is chosen for one year immediately preceding his election.’”
NCGOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse tweeted that he was “greatly concerned” about the residency requirement change, but has not commented on anything else.
That part of the order means that candidates can relocate to districts by February 28 as opposed to the normal requirement, which would be November 6 of this year.
At the court hearing last week, Rep. Grier Martin (D-Wake), who is the House Chairman of the Democratic Conference, described the Democratic Party as being paralyzed in the absence of constitutional districts.
He said they can’t identify candidates when at this stage of the game, potential political candidates would normally be out meeting voters, raising money and organizing campaign strategies.
Martin said during a phone interview Tuesday that he’s glad the party finally has a timeline to work with.
“The court has put out a quick schedule, not a rushed one at all,” he said.
He added that he understood the judges’ reasoning for the slightly extended time period from the August 11 timeline the plaintiffs asked for.
“With regard to recruiting, I think the certainty of the time table will help a little bit,” he said. “A lot of folks we’re talking to can now at least make plans with a little more certainty.”
Still, Martin said not to expect the unveiling of potential candidates just yet, as he can’t in good conscious advise the ones in affected districts to announce.
“There’s still too much power in the Republicans’ hands to use the power of the drawing pen to eliminate strong Democratic candidates,” he said.
Martin said the waiving of the residency requirement will help increase the pool of good Democratic candidates. He said the language in the order shows that the court listened to testimony about concerns of Republicans using their map drawing power for a partisan purpose.
He added that he thought the judges made clear in their order that they will be paying close attention to the remedial redistricting process and he hopes that will lead to better collaboration.
“I do think this is the Republicans last chance to draw a legal map,” Martin said. “If they don’t get it right this time, I don’t think they’ll get another chance.”
Some of the affected Senate districts include Greene, Lenoir, Pitt, Wayne, Halifax, Nash, Vance, Wilson, Wake, Durham, Guilford and Mecklenburg counties. Some of the affected House districts include Bertie, Gates, Pasquotank, Franklin, Nash, Duplin, Sampson, Durham, Vance, Granville, Hoke, Robeson, Scotland, Guilford and Mecklenburg counties.
Blake Esselstyn, an unaffiliated North Carolina voter and self-described “map geek,” publishes a new blog, Districks, about gerrymandering and redistricting. He has published interactive House and Senate maps to show which districts are affected by racial gerrymandering in this case.
“Still, as I’ve noted elsewhere, to really grasp which districts will be redrawn, you need to understand about the county grouping requirements,” Esselstyn wrote, adding that he’s working on a post about that.
The House and Senate Redistricting Committees have another joint meeting scheduled at 10:30 a.m. this Friday in room 643 of the Legislative Office Building. The meeting is open to the public and there is a live audio stream online.
North Carolinians can submit comments to the committees on the redistricting process here.
Common Cause NC on Tuesday sent a letter to members of the joint House and Senate Redistricting Committees calling on them to adopt nonpartisan criteria for drawing the new legislative districts, noting that a majority of the committee’s members are on the record as supporting nonpartisan redistricting.
In the organizational committee meeting last week, Republican leaders included a set of sample legislative maps produced through a nonpartisan redistricting exercise organized by Common Cause NC.
“We are encouraged by the committee’s interest in an impartial, nonpartisan redistricting process, reflected by the fact that you chose to share the draft legislative maps that were produced during an exercise overseen by Common Cause earlier this year,” wrote Bob Phillips, Executive Director of the organization. “And we hope that exercise will inspire your committee to adopt its own impartial criteria when creating new legislative districts to comply with the federal court order.”