State's high court will weigh access to redistricting documents

Groups say documents concerning the process are public records

ablythe@newsobserver.comJuly 9, 2012 

— The new legislative and congressional districts drawn in 2011 by the Republican-led legislature are clear, but the process that produced them was clouded by closed-door politics, some contend.

Lawyers are expected to go before the state Supreme Court on Tuesday morning to argue whether a state legislature that has described itself as “the most transparent” in “modern history” about its motives and criteria for the new districts is illegally holding back documents linked to the process.

On one side: registered Democrats and representatives from a coalition of advocacy groups, media organizations and open government advocates who argue that the Republican leadership is withholding documents they are entitled to under state public records laws.

On the opposing side: Legal representatives for top Republicans in the state House of Representatives and Senate who argue that emails to and from lawyers hired by the Republican leadership with some $200,000 in state money were confidential and not subject to the state’s public records laws.

Thomas A. Farr and Phillip J. Strach, the Raleigh attorneys representing the Republican leadership, argue that the plaintiffs have “scripted the case backwards” in their attempts to gain access to email about the redistricting process.

The lawsuit alleges the maps are unlawful because black voters are concentrated in districts that reduce their overall political power. The lawsuit authors were unsuccessful in their attempts to get a panel of judges to block the maps from being used in the 2012 elections.

Nevertheless, the case remains alive with a focus on future elections.

Redistricting occurs every 10 years based on the national Census. The Republicans, who in 2010 took control of both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time in more than a century, used their newfound power to draw districts that appear to improve their party’s chances in future elections.

The state Supreme Court is not expected to take up the crux of the redistricting case on Tuesday, but a ruling on the transparency issue could have an impact on future legal arguments.

“It ought to be a very interesting issue,” said Hugh Stevens, a Raleigh lawyer who represents the N.C. Press Association and the N.C. Association of Broadcasters, which have asked to join the case in support of releasing the documents.

The N.C. Open Government Coalition, an organization dedicated to transparency in government, also has asked to join the case for the same reason.

Farr and Strach said in their July 6 brief that the Democrats and coalition of organizations seeking more documents have “cast themselves as the protagonists, the alleged ‘public’ with a supposed right to review documents covered by the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrine.”

Instead, Farr and Strach contend, the Democrats and their supporters have attempted “to inflame the court” against their clients by arguing they are “ ‘hiding’ documents.”

The trial court ruled that the documents should be turned over, but the Republican leadership has challenged that ruling to the state Supreme Court.

Edwin Speas, a Raleigh lawyer among the attorneys representing the coalition seeking the documents, said he thought the documents would show that the 2011 redistricting plan was not drawn in an open and transparent way, as the Republicans contend.

“I think the evidence is going to show these maps were drawn behind closed doors,” Speas said, then put into the system without legislative staff knowing about them, then voted on quickly without a chance for analysis.

The redistricting maps, if allowed to stand, would be used until the 2020 elections.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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