Politics & Government

One NC gerrymandering trial reaches the end. Here’s what could happen next.

The gerrymandering trial challenging North Carolina’s districts for the state legislature wrapped up Friday in a Raleigh courtroom. But no matter what the judges decide, it almost certainly won’t be the final word in this case.

The case pits Republican legislative leaders against the state Democratic Party and the redistricting reform group Common Cause. The judges hearing the case did not issue a ruling Friday, and it’s not clear when they will.

Either way, whichever side loses will likely appeal the case, and at some point it will most likely come before the North Carolina Supreme Court. Republican lawmakers have been predicting that outcome for months. Earlier this year they tried — unsuccessfully — to move the case into the federal court system.

They said they didn’t like their chances at the NC Supreme Court, which has a 6-1 Democratic majority. The US Supreme Court, on the other hand, has a 5-4 conservative majority and recently voted to uphold North Carolina’s GOP-drawn lines for North Carolina’s US House seats.

This current case is just one in a series of gerrymandering lawsuits challenging maps drawn by Republicans after they took control of the state legislature in 2011.

Sorting out lawsuits

The maps North Carolina’s new Republican majority passed in 2011 for Congress, the NC House and the NC Senate were all ultimately thrown out as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.

All those maps were drawn by a Republican operative named Tom Hofeller. After those court losses, the legislature’s Republican majority called on Hofeller again to draw new lines.

Those new maps spawned new lawsuits. One was the federal case over the US House districts, which ended in Republicans’ favor last month. Another is this ongoing case challenging the districts for the state legislature.

Both of those lawsuits challenged the new lines on the basis of partisan gerrymandering — instead of racial gerrymandering — claiming that Republicans violated the rights of Democrats by artificially diminishing their political power and influence.

The US Supreme Court ruled last month that while partisan gerrymandering “leads to results that reasonably seem unjust,” it isn’t the court’s job to fix and should be dealt with by Congress or individual state governments.

It’s unclear what stance the NC Supreme Court might take in the ongoing state-level case, if it gets that far.

The three judges who will rule on the trial court level of the case are superior court judges from around the state — Paul Ridgeway of Wake County and Alma Hinton of Halifax County, who are both Democrats, and Joseph Crosswhite of Iredell County, who is a Republican.

Details of this case

In the races for the NC General Assembly in 2018, Democratic candidates won a majority of the votes statewide. But Republicans still won a majority of both the 120 seats in the NC House and the 50 seats in the NC Senate.

Both sides have acknowledged that fact, although they differ on how important it is. Not much else gained a consensus at the trial over the last two weeks, where a three-judge panel has heard arguments on both sides from voters, politicians and gerrymandering experts like political scientists and mathematicians.

A significant portion of the trial focused on Hofeller’s formerly secret personal files, which were discovered by his estranged daughter after his death last year.

Republican lawmakers tried to keep the files out of the case. But the judges ruled that they probably should have been public records and allowed them in.

Using those files, the challengers in the case argued that Hofeller’s files showed he improperly used racial data when drawing draft maps. They also claimed he had finished drawing many of the lines before the legislature ever approved the rules he was supposed to be operating under.

Republican lawmakers, on the other hand, argued that the work Hofeller did on a computer at the General Assembly contained no racial data, and that any map drafts outside the legislature on his personal computer should be considered merely a hobby, and not official work.

Republican lawmakers faced a high-profile setback on the penultimate day of the trial, when the judges struck much of the testimony from a key GOP expert witness from the record.

That witness, Claremont McKenna College political scientist Douglas Johnson, had originally cast doubt on the challengers’ claims that Hofeller’s draft maps were largely similar to the maps the legislature ultimately passed.

But Johnson admitted under cross-examination that his analysis was flawed. The judges then ruled that the flaws were serious enough to take those parts of his testimony out of the case.

The Republican lawmakers, however, have maintained from the start of the trial that no matter what Hofeller’s files might show, it’s not the job of the courts to weigh in on the topic — echoing last month’s Supreme Court decision.

Phil Strach, one of the attorneys for the GOP lawmakers, said in his opening statement last week that if the court rules against them, it would “undemocratically change the redistricting process and remove it from the legislature.”

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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.