The three Superior Court judges hearing the lawsuit that challenges the state legislature's redistricting plans have set a Jan. 12 date for hearing dismissal arguments, but did not put the trial on an accelerated schedule.
That means district boundaries for legislative and congressional seats could still be in question when candidates begin filing for office.
Nothing in the judges' order, released Monday, suggests delays in next year's election schedule. All or parts of the lawsuit could be dismissed, or the judges could decide the issues without a trial. But if the lawsuit continues to trial, the two sides could be preparing for it well into February. Candidates are scheduled to begin filing to run for office Feb. 13.
These new districts were to be used for next year's election. The maps would give Republicans the chance to add to their majority in the legislature and win more congressional seats.
The Democrats and four nonprofits who brought the lawsuit had suggested an accelerated schedule with a trial starting Feb. 2. The judges did not set a trial date, and did not go along with the suggestion to speed up identification of expert witnesses.
"It appears to me the court hasn't made up its mind yet, but based upon the comments of the judges, we assume they are going to proceed in an orderly manner," said Tom Farr, a lawyer for Republican legislators named as defendants.
Redistricting lawsuits present the possibility of trashing election schedules. A decade ago, when Republicans sued over Democrats' maps, the 2002 primary was pushed to September.
Lawyers for the group challenging the redistricting plans said the lawsuit's effect on the election schedule is still unknown because so much about the suit remains fluid. They could ask the judges to decide on the claims without a full trial, for example.
"We have not precluded those possibilities," said Eddie Speas, the Democrats' lawyer.
The challengers argue Republicans violated the state constitution by splitting more counties than necessary. They also say Republican map-makers split an unprecedented number of voting precincts to segregate voters into black and white districts.
Lawyers for the state and Republican legislators laid out their arguments for dismissing the suit in documents filed Monday.