RALEIGH — The political battle over the state’s redistricting maps reached the state Supreme Court on Tuesday, and the justices lobbed question after question about why specific documents generated by outside lawyers during the process should be public or confidential.
In a courtroom filled to capacity, six of the seven justices got in on the questioning.
At issue was an April ruling in which a three-judge state Superior Court panel decided that email and other correspondence generated by outside lawyers for the Republican leadership during the mapping process should be turned over to voters and groups who had filed suit.
Thomas A. Farr and Phillip J. Strach, the Raleigh attorneys representing the Republican leadership, argued the documents were protected by attorney-client privilege, and not public records.
Edwin Speas and Anita Earls, the attorneys representing voters and their advocacy groups, argued that the outside attorneys, paid some $200,000 in state money, did not get to decide what documents were privileged as work product. That decision, they argued, was one the courts should make, and they cited a 1983 law to bolster their contentions.
The 1983 law requires the release of all redistricting documents created by legislative employees or other contract workers once the maps are approved. The voters and groups challenging the new congressional and legislative districts hope the documents might provide details about why the boundaries were drawn certain ways.
Congressional and legislative maps are drawn every 10 years in conjunction with the census. The Republican-led legislature hired two law firms to provide counsel before the maps won approval in July 2011.
In legal briefs and in court Tuesday, GOP attorneys Farr and Strach argued the 1983 law does not eliminate one of the foundations of an adversarial law system – attorney-client privilege. They argue that privilege must be waived and because the Republican leadership had not, the documents being sought could be and should be withheld.
Farr and Strach argued that hundreds of thousands of pages of documents already had been turned over to the Democratic voters and civil rights and election reform groups that sued in November.
The Democratic voters and coalition suing the legislators argue the new maps are unlawful because black voters are concentrated in districts that reduce their overall political power. Though they were unsuccessful in their attempt to block the use of the new districts in the 2012 elections, they hope the courts will eventually rule that the lines must be redrawn.
It is unclear how quickly the Supreme Court will rule on the transparency issue, but attorneys for the litigants said they hoped it would be soon. It could have an impact on their legal arguments as they get to the core of the case.
The N.C. Press Association, N.C. Association of Broadcasters and N.C. Open Government Coalition have filed friend-of-the-court briefs with the Democratic voters, the state NAACP, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and other civil rights and voter rights advocates.
The groups argue that withholding the documents would jeopardize the ability of North Carolinians and media organizations to monitor how public bodies are carrying out the public’s business.