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Legislative Remapping In NC Upheld By Judges

A districts map is shown as a three-judge panel of the Wake County Superior Court presides over the trial of Common Cause, et al. v. Lewis, et al at the Campbell University School of Law in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, July 15, 2019.
Gerry Broome

North Carolina state judges who rejected state legislative district maps over what they called GOP bias upheld on Monday all the remapping that they ordered Republicans last month to perform.

The three-judge panel declined to meet the demands of Common Cause, the state Democratic Party and Democratic voters for a third-party expert to take over redrawing nearly 20 state House districts.

The decision means that, barring an appeal, the nearly 80 legislative districts the judges told lawmakers last month to redraw will be used in the 2020 elections. Candidate filing begins Dec. 2, with the primary set for March 3.

The districts' final shapes will go a long way toward determining which party wins majorities in the November 2020 elections. Whichever wins will have the power in 2021 to draw the maps that will be used for the next decade based on new census population numbers.

The Democrats and Common Cause successfully challenged Republicans in their partisan gerrymandering lawsuit, prompting the remapping. But the judges disagreed with the plaintiffs' complaints that the redrawing process wasn't transparent, as the judges had ordered.

"The court is satisfied, despite the lapses identified by plaintiffs, that the efforts made by the General Assembly to ensure that the remedial process was conducted in public view were reasonable and complied with the court's mandate," Superior Court Judges Paul Ridgeway, Alma Hinton and Joseph Crosswhite wrote in their order.

Common Cause didn't immediately comment on the decision because lawyers were still reviewing the ruling, a spokesman said. In a news release, the top Republicans on the House Redistricting Committee praised the ruling.

Legislators had to redraw nearly half of the General Assembly districts because the judges declared that the House and Senate maps approved in 2017 violated the state constitution.

But the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the Sept. 3 ruling still objected to 19 of the redrawn House districts covering 10 counties, saying they remained stained by partisanship and violations of the rules the judges directed GOP lawmakers to follow. They didn't challenge any Senate districts, which received more bipartisan support in the chamber.

The judges said they were OK with how the legislators originated the House district changes from sets of maps a redistricting expert hired by the plaintiffs drew for the lawsuit trial this summer.

Republican lawmakers had contended the districts, picked at random from University of Michigan researcher Jowei Chen, complied with last month's ruling because they are clearly nonpartisan and were given great weight in the judges' ruling. Using Chen's maps and the methodology to select the ultimate base districts were reasonable, the judges wrote.

The judges had ordered that the maps couldn't be drawn using voting data or election results.

The plaintiffs alleged attorneys for the Republican defendants improperly emailed partisan data with House Redistricting Committee members about Chen's base districts. While a "serious breach of this court's mandate," the judges wrote, the distribution appears inadvertent and the data weren't widely reviewed.

In last month's ruling, the judges declared GOP lawmakers fashioned boundaries to entrench the party's majorities in both chambers, discriminating against Democrats by weakening their votes and denying their rights to participate in elections free from interference.

Initial reviews by redistricting experts of the maps approved by the General Assembly showed they were less skewed toward Republicans than the current plans but didn't necessarily signal Democratic majorities were likely. Republicans took sole control of both chambers in 2011 for the first time in 140 years.

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