There’s an old adage in the law that’s often used to describe situations in which a judge jails someone for contempt of court. Because the jailed individual normally needs only to comply with the judge’s directive in order to be released, it’s said that they “have the keys to the jail cell door in their pocket.”
Today in North Carolina, there is an analogous situation under way in state Superior Court where good government advocates at Common Cause are suing General Assembly leaders over their egregiously (and admittedly) gerrymandered legislative maps.
No, no one is going to jail for any gerrymandering-related behavior – at least not yet – but there is something that defendants in both situations have in common: complete power to end the litigation.
We were reminded of the similarity between the two situations on Monday when Common Cause advocates held a press conference outside of the state Legislative Building even as the trial took place a few blocks away in a special courtroom that had been set up at Campbell University Law School.
The essence of their message, reiterated succinctly at the press conference by Common Cause Director of Outreach and Special Projects Brent Laurenz: We didn’t want to sue the state. We’d be happy to dismiss the lawsuit. What’s more, all legislative leaders need to do to make such a thing happen is to bow to the inevitable and pass genuine redistricting reform legislation – legislation of the kind that Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger himself sponsored a decade ago.
Common Cause executive director Bob Phillips, who was busy testifying at the trial at the hour of the press conference, put it this way in a statement released last week:
If Republican legislative leaders had enacted real redistricting reform – like they repeatedly called for and sponsored when Democrats were in power – litigation would never have been necessary. Instead, they have blocked reform and engaged in blatant partisan gerrymandering of our state’s voting districts.
If [House Redistricting Committee chair] Rep. [David] Lewis is sincere about pursuing redistricting reform, he can start with the 2009 ‘Horton Independent Redistricting Commission’ bill, which he, along with now Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, sponsored at the time.”
The bill to which both Phillips and Laurenz were referring was a bipartisan proposal named after the late Senator Hamilton Horton, a principled Forsyth County Republican who served eight terms in the Senate during three different decades and who had long championed redistricting reform.
The Horton bill is precisely what good government advocates from all sides of the political spectrum have been demanding for decades: a proposal to create an independent citizens commission that would draw North Carolina’s legislative and congressional districts free from partisan politics, with full transparency and robust public input.
It’s important to distinguish proposals like the Horton bill (and a similar measure that more than half of the state House of Representatives co-sponsored earlier this year) from some of the less ambitious redistricting reform proposals that have cropped up in recent months. While it’s hard to imagine a system that would be worse than the current one in which lawmakers, quite literally and specifically, choose their voters, Common Cause advocates have made it clear that they have serious concerns about reform proposals that would turn the responsibility for drawing maps over to legislative staffers, who would then craft the maps behind closed doors.
As Laurenz emphasized on Monday, it would be hard at this point to view any redistricting proposal as genuine reform if it doesn’t provide for ample public input and complete transparency.
Happily, despite the emergence of milquetoast reform proposals (and the recent dreadful 5-4 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in which Chief Justice John Roberts decried gerrymandering as “incompatible with democratic principles,” but then declared the matter beyond the Court’s purview), there is a growing sense that the determined advocacy efforts of Common Cause and its many allies are, slowly but surely, making real headway – both here in North Carolina and across the nation.
As Senator Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake) emphasized at the Monday event, the fight against gerrymandering in North Carolina is now the “frontline” in the broader fight for democracy and, increasingly, a battle that is in the national spotlight. While GOP defendants may contend that there’s nothing to worry about and that political gerrymandering merely represents “business as usual,” it’s clear that Americans have finally caught on to the centuries-old scam – especially now that the advent of modern digital technology has allowed parties in power to draw lines with such surgical precision.
The bottom line: One way or another and in the not-too-distant future, the days of gerrymandering are numbered. Republican leaders would do well – both for the people they serve and their own legacy – to end their obstructionist ways and, once more, be a part of the solution.