Progress, setbacks in fight against gerrymandering headline an extraordinary year in the courts

Progress, setbacks in fight against gerrymandering headline an extraordinary year in the courts

Two-thousand nineteen will forever be immortalized as the year North Carolinians fought back against gerrymandering and won. Their prize? For the first time in a decade, voters will get to cast their ballot in something resembling a constitutional election in 2020.

Of course, it’s pretty easy to say gerrymandering and redistricting dominated the news in North Carolina in 2019 — it’s been that way for at least three years. But something different happened this year: the U.S. Supreme Court finally determined it would not put an end to partisan gerrymandering, while at the same time, leaving a path open for state courts to take on the issue.

Common Cause v. Lewis, a challenge to the state’s legislative maps, had already been pending at that point, so it became the first test case following the highest court’s ruling. It also provided for quite the introduction to Stephanie Hofeller, the daughter of infamous GOP mapmaker Tom Hofeller. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because the elder Hofeller helped racially gerrymander North Carolina a few years back and then, when that was struck down as unconstitutional, he gerrymandered the state to entrench Republicans in power for the foreseeable (or so he’d hoped).

Tom Hofeller died last year, and afterwards, his daughter released his personal digital files to Common Cause during the partisan gerrymandering litigation. It ultimately showed how intentional and deep the gerrymandering was in North Carolina and helped Common Cause win litigation and secure new legislative voting maps for 2020.

The “Hofeller files,” as the documents were dubbed, also showed some other damning evidence, including that Tom Hofeller advised the Trump administration to devise a citizenship question to add to the 2020 Census in order to help Republican redistricting efforts. That plan failed.

Litigation is ongoing with regard to the public release of the entirety of the Hofeller files, but Stephanie Hofeller has been getting copies to media outlets, including Policy Watch, and ultimately is working on open-sourcing the documents so as to make them accessible to all. The documents could have far-reaching impacts as partisan gerrymandering challenges in other states are mounted.

In case you’ve lost track of what happened and when in the gerrymandering and redistricting debates, here are five top stories from 2019 that should get readers back up to speed:

Gerrymandering lawsuit stunner: Daughter of deceased GOP mapmaker turns over his documents to Common Cause — Policy Watch was the first media outlet to break the news that Stephanie Hofeller had released her father’s files. Read about how they came to be and the speculation about what else they could contain besides information about North Carolina redistricting.

Hofeller files: Lawmakers lied to federal court in 2017, preventing NC from getting special election — This is a first look at just how much evidence was contained within the Hofeller files. Read about how GOP lawmakers misled a federal court about their mapmaking efforts that were supposed to correct past racial gerrymandering, but ended up creating new partisan gerrymanders instead.

In historic ruling, judges strike down North Carolina’s gerrymandered legislative maps — A three-judge panel unanimously struck down the 2017 legislative maps as unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders and ordered an unprecedented amount of transparency as lawmakers took on a remedial map-making process.

North Carolina reacts to court decisions in favor of ‘fairer maps’ — Remedial state legislative maps were accepted by the court the same day it decided to strike down the 2016 congressional map because of likely unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering. Now North Carolina has new legislative and congressional maps for 2020.

Bonus: Read about how the new congressional map came to be (hint: not everyone believes it’s not still gerrymandered) in Breaking: State court cites time constraints in approving congressional maps that are “not perfect.”

The gerrymanderer’s daughter — Stephanie Hofeller’s decision to release her father’s files wasn’t made in a vacuum. Read about her past, present and increasingly complicated future in this exclusive interview in her Lexington, Kentucky apartment.

Meanwhile in other news from the courts…

While gerrymandering dominated the news, it was far from the only big story on the courts, law and democracy beat. Two-thousand nineteen was the year of Republican anti-immigration efforts in North Carolina; it was the year the State Board of Elections made known to the public the extent of an absentee-ballot scheme that defrauded numerous voters; and it was the year the state finally implemented legislation to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction (in addition to many, many more news items).

If you missed any of these items, read the following articles to get a more complete picture of all that happened this year:

Facing resistance from some sheriffs, N.C. lawmakers seek to force cooperation with ICE — Immigration detainers are requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold individuals they believe are not lawful citizens in jail or prison for up to 48 hours until the federal agency can take custody and begin deportation proceedings. Sheriffs aren’t required to honor those requests, and a new group has decided not to do so — a development that spurred a year-long fight with Republican legislators.

In shocking reversal, Mark Harris calls for new election; Board agrees unanimously — After four days of an evidentiary hearing about an absentee-ballot scheme in Bladen County, it was decided there would be a new election.

NC officials dismiss hundreds of thousands of old court cases as part of massive data ‘clean-up’ — More than 700,000 total cases were dismissed over two years by 50 counties as part of an effort called the Data Integrity Initiative. The dismissals were facilitated by the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC).

Future, past of NC death penalty in focus at state Supreme Court — The state Supreme Court is weighing whether racial bias played a significant factor in the original imposition of the death penalty for some inmates and if so, whether they should get life without parole instead.

Raise the Age funding ‘a good foundation’ as Dec. 1 implementation nears — “Raise the Age” funding came in just under the wire this year. Read about how officials made do and continued on with preparation just a little over a month before implementation.