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Trial judges dismiss North Carolina redistricting lawsuit over right to 'fair elections'

A North Carolina lawmaker studies a district map during a joint select committee meeting on redistricting, July 26, 2017, in Raleigh, N.C. North Carolina legislators are once again mapping the state’s congressional and General Assembly districts. The House and Senate redistricting committees scheduled hearings this week—the last one happening Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, in Raleigh—to receive public comment about the process of drawing district boundaries that would be used in the 2024 elections and for the remainder of the decade.
Gerry Broome
/
AP
A North Carolina lawmaker studies a district map during a joint select committee meeting on redistricting, July 26, 2017, in Raleigh, N.C. North Carolina legislators are once again mapping the state’s congressional and General Assembly districts. The House and Senate redistricting committees scheduled hearings this week—the last one happening Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, in Raleigh—to receive public comment about the process of drawing district boundaries that would be used in the 2024 elections and for the remainder of the decade.

North Carolina trial judges have dismissed a lawsuit challenging redrawn legislative and congressional district lines on the argument that they run afoul of an indirect constitutional right to "fair elections." The judges said a recent affirmation still applies — that redistricting policy decisions are left to the General Assembly, not the courts.

In an order released Friday, the Superior Court judges threw out the complaint filed in January by several voters who attempt to block enforcement of redistricting that they said creates outsized preferences that favor one side — in this case benefitting Republicans.

In a 2023 ruling by the state Supreme Court, the GOP majority said the judiciary lacked authority to declare redistricting maps as illegal partisan gerrymanders. They also said that redistricting was a political matter the judicial branch must stay out of, save for challenges on specific limitations.

The voters' lawyer argued in a court hearing earlier this month that the 2023 decision didn't apply to his lawsuit, which described an implicit though unspecified right within the state constitution to fair elections. The lawsuit cites specific language in the constitution that "elections shall be often held" and that "all elections shall be free."

But the order signed Superior Court Judges Jeffery Foster, Angela Pickett and Ashley Gore reads that the 2023 opinion by the Supreme Court still controls the outcome in this case. That's the argument also made by Republican legislative leaders who were among the lawsuit defendants.

"The issues raised by Plaintiffs are clearly of a political nature," the order dated Thursday said. "There is not a judicially discoverable or manageable standard by which to decide them, and resolution by the Panel would require us to make policy determinations that are better suited for the policymaking branch of government, namely, the General Assembly."

Spokespeople for state House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger, as well as a representative for the plaintiffs, did not immediately respond to emails late Friday seeking a response to the dismissal. The plaintiffs can appeal the decision.

The lawsuit is among four filed in North Carolina to challenge congressional and legislative boundaries drawn by the GOP-dominated General Assembly last fall for use in elections through 2030 that favor Republicans electorally. The other three, still pending, were filed in federal court and focus on claims of illegal racial gerrymandering.

The "fair elections" lawsuit focuses on a handful of districts. Each of the three judges hearing the lawsuit are registered Republicans. Chief Justice Paul Newby, a Republican who wrote the prevailing opinion in the 2023 redistricting ruling, chooses three-judge panels to hear such cases.

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