Politics & Government

After maps struck down in NC gerrymandering lawsuit, top Republican leader won’t appeal

North Carolina’s political maps for the state legislature are unconstitutional and must be redrawn before the 2020 elections, a court has decided.

A panel of judges struck down the maps Tuesday, in a 357-page ruling that focused on the level of political partisanship used to draw them. The maps were drawn in 2017 to replace previous maps, drawn in 2011, that had also been ruled unconstitutional. Both sets of maps were drawn by North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature.

The judges found that “The North Carolina Supreme Court has long and consistently held that ‘our government is founded on the will of the people,’ that ‘their will is expressed by the ballot.’”

And that fact helped the judges conclude that the maps violated the state constitution because “it is the carefully crafted maps, and not the will of the voters, that dictate the election outcomes in a significant number of legislative districts and, ultimately, the majority control of the General Assembly.”

Tuesday’s decision may be the final word in this legal battle, since at least one top Republican lawmaker said he doesn’t plan to appeal the ruling.

“This is a historic victory for the people of North Carolina,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, one of the groups that sued to overturn the maps. “The court has made clear that partisan gerrymandering violates our state’s constitution and is unacceptable. Thanks to the court’s landmark decision, politicians in Raleigh will no longer be able to rig our elections through partisan gerrymandering.”

The three-judge panel was unanimous in its ruling. The panel consisted of two Democrats — Paul Ridgeway of Wake County and Alma Hinton of Halifax County — and one Republican, Joseph Crosswhite of Iredell County.

“The conclusions of this Court today reflect the unanimous and best efforts of the undersigned trial judges — each hailing from different geographic regions and each with differing ideological and political outlooks — to apply core constitutional principles to this complex and divisive topic,” they wrote.

Republicans won a similar case earlier this summer at the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld North Carolina’s congressional districts.

The state’s legislative leaders argued during this trial over the state-level maps that the state courts should follow that federal ruling. But after the loss Tuesday, Republican Senate leader Phil Berger said he wouldn’t appeal and would instead start drawing new maps.

“We disagree with the court’s ruling as it contradicts the Constitution and binding legal precedent, but we intend to respect the court’s decision and finally put this divisive battle behind us,” Berger said in a statement. “Nearly a decade of relentless litigation has strained the legitimacy of this state’s institutions, and the relationship between its leaders, to the breaking point. It’s time to move on.”

The ruling follows a two-week trial earlier this summer. Democrats and anti-gerrymandering activists including Common Cause accused Republican politicians in Raleigh of intentionally drawing political districts to take power away from Democratic voters and give inordinate power to Republican voters.

Wayne Goodwin, chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, said in a news release that Democrats hope to take back control of the General Assembly in the 2020 elections. Goodwin criticized Republicans for the maps which were overturned Tuesday on partisan grounds, as well as the 2011 maps that were overturned on racial grounds.

“From targeting people based on their race to dividing them based on their political beliefs, Republicans for a decade have rigged our state and silenced voters to cling desperately onto power,” he said.

Democratic Rep. Graig Meyer of Hillsborough, who testified at trial about how the maps affected Democratic candidates’ chances of winning legislative seats, said in a news release Tuesday that the ruling is “a big win for democracy and a game changer for 2020.”

Time is running out before the 2020 elections — candidate filing for the March 3 primary begins Dec. 2 — but the judges said they are serious about those elections being held using new maps. In previous cases, courts have struck down North Carolina maps but have made their rulings too close to the election for new maps to be drawn.

In Tuesday’s ruling, judges gave the legislature just two weeks, until Sept. 18, to draw new maps. Judges ruled the new lines can be drawn to protect incumbents from being pitted against one another but can’t use any other political data.

Judges also told lawmakers they might simply reschedule the elections in 2020 if the legislature can’t come up with new maps in time. “The Court retains jurisdiction to move the primary date for the General Assembly elections, or all of the State’s 2020 primaries, including for offices other than the General Assembly, should doing so become necessary to provide effective relief in this case,” the ruling says.

Jonathan Mattingly, a Duke University math and statistics professor who testified for Common Cause and the Democrats as an expert witness, said he was glad the judges agreed with him that Republican explanations “fell flat” as to why their maps were such partisan outliers.

“I’m happy that the courts listened to a mathematical, data-driven analysis of this,” Mattingly said in an interview Tuesday.

Mattingly said he doesn’t think it’s necessary to completely remove politicians from the map-making process, but that it should be more open to the public. That includes transparency during the drawing of the maps, he said, as well as after the maps are done but before they get a final stamp of approval.

“It would be quite reasonable to say, after the fact, ‘let’s check them against some maps that people have drawn,’” he said. “And if they don’t act normally, explain why.”

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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.