Federal judges had pointed questions and comments Thursday for the lawyer representing North Carolina lawmakers who have not yet complied with the panel’s order to draw new districts for electing General Assembly members.
The judges want the legislature to fix what they have called unconstitutional “racial gerrymanders.”
Fifty weeks have passed since the judges — Catherine Eagles, a Barack Obama appointee to the Middle District of North Carolina, James Wynn, an Obama appointee to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Thomas Schroeder, a George W. Bush appointee in the Middle District — ruled that 28 of the 170 districts used to elect North Carolina’s lawmakers were drawn to weaken the influence of black voters across the state.
At a nearly three-hour hearing in a full courtroom in the federal courthouse in Greensboro, the judges questioned why the legislators had not produced new maps to correct North Carolina’s election boundaries, and why Phil Strach, the attorney representing legislative leaders, was arguing that the lawmakers should have nearly three and a half more months to get the task done.
Eagles told Strach she did not have a sense that the General Assembly was taking the matter seriously.
“You don’t seem serious, so what’s our assurance that you are serious about remedying this,” Eagles asked Strach, who laid out a timeline that would call for setting up criteria for drawing the districts, holding public hearings across the state, getting feedback on changed districts and then letting the judges have a look at them to determine whether the new maps corrected the problems that have been in place for three state election cycles this decade.
Wynn said he agreed with Eagles.
“We would respectfully disagree with that,” Strach said.
Eagles was even more direct when Strach argued against a timeline proposed by Anita Earls, director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, one of the law firms representing the challengers who filed the lawsuit.
Strach said that timeline would truncate the legislature’s ability to hold hearings across the state, though the lawmakers have known since early June that the U.S. Supreme Court had unanimously affirmed the three-judge panel’s August 2016 ruling.
“Well that’s your fault,” Eagles said.
The judges also questioned why the lawmakers planned to start the process “over from scratch,” as if they had just gotten new census numbers and were tweaking districts to reflect population shifts.
“That’s not the purpose of this redistricting,” Eagles said. “The only purpose is to correct the unconstitutional districts.”
The judges ended the hearing by early afternoon and told all gathered they would take the matter under advisement without offering their timeline for issuing an order.
Republicans dominate both chambers of the General Assembly, holding 74 of the 120 House seats and 35 of the 50 Senate seats. Their numbers allow them to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes.
On Wednesday, the state House of Representatives and Senate held a joint committee meeting that outlined their plans for getting input and sharing their plans on new districts.
Legislative leaders have tapped Thomas Hofeller, a veteran GOP mapmaker and consultant who led the drawing of the 2011 maps that included state legislative and congressional districts found by the federal courts to include unconstitutional gerrymanders, to help.
Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, told the committee members and others gathered for the meeting that Democrats would not have access to Hofeller.
Wynn reminded the lawyers for both sides at the Greensboro hearing that the court could appoint a “special master” to draw the lines.
“You know what the problem is,” Wynn said. “Don’t we need some maps?”
Strach argued that the General Assembly was trying to develop a process that called for more public input and feedback after finding out from the courts how flawed the results were in 2011.
“Your honor, someone taking it seriously makes a plan to do it right,” Strach said.
At the start of the hearing, Rep. Grier Martin, a Wake County Democrat, said the absence of corrective maps had made it difficult for potential candidates.
As the state House Democratic Conference chairman, Martin said he told potential candidates to share their interest in running for office with a limited audience until mapmakers had drawn new districts.
“Our biggest fear is that with the swipe of a pen or the click of a keyboard, they can district them out of office,” Martin said about the Republicans who will lead the process.
Milo Pyne, a Durham resident who is involved with recruiting candidates and recommending candidates at the local level, told the judges about similar problems.
“It makes it just impossible for an individual candidate to assess the lay of the land,” Pyne said.
Attorneys for the legislative leaders have argued against special elections in 2017 or in March 2018, as the Southern Coalition for Social Justice has proposed.
Edwin Speas, a Raleigh attorney who also represented the challengers, argued that the “absence of valid districts calls into question the General Assembly’s ability to govern.”
Speas also argued that with 28 seats declared unconstitutional, North Carolina’s General Assembly “may be the most illegally constituted legislative body in the history of the United States.”
Strach countered that, arguing that only 16 percent of the General Assembly came from the districts found unconstitutional, making the vast majority of the lawmakers in legal districts.
But Wynn looked down from the bench and challenged the lawyer before the three-judge panel and reminded him that packing African-American voters into the 28 districts meant their overall influence had been weakened in surrounding districts. The legislators elected in those surrounding districts benefited from that, Wynn added.
“And they’re the ones who will be drawing the maps,” Wynn said.
Schroeder, who asked fewer questions and had fewer comments than Wynn and Eagles, told Strach that lawmakers were “putting the court in a difficult position” with the schedule proposed.