State legislative leaders stepped in Thursday to defend their contested Wake County election maps as a federal appeals court received competing requests on whether to delay a ruling that bans the maps.
On July 1, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals declared the maps that the legislature drew for the Wake County Board of Commissioners and school board to be unconstitutional. With the status of the Nov. 8 elections in flux, Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore filed a motion asking to be named as defendants in the case.
“Movants have a vital interest in defending the legislation the North Carolina General Assembly enacted and which it deems constitutional,” Thomas Farr, the attorney for Berger and Moore, wrote in the motion.
Also on Thursday, the Wake County Board of Elections filed a motion asking all 15 members of the Fourth Circuit to hear the case, which would typically delay adoption of the July 1 ruling.
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But on Thursday, the plaintiffs asked the court to immediately implement the appellate ruling. The plaintiffs, which consist of a group of left-leaning individuals and groups, want the court to reinstate the election maps that the school board and commissioners had adopted in 2011 before they were replaced by the state legislature.
The flurry of court filings comes as time is running short for this fall’s elections, when all nine school board seats and five Board of Commissioners seats are scheduled to be on the ballot.
In 2013, the Republican-led General Assembly redrew the lines for all nine Wake school board seats, turning two into regional districts that each covers about half the county. In 2015, state legislators changed the Wake Board of Commissioners lines to match those used by the school board.
The Wake maps were changed after both boards flipped from Republican to Democratic majorities. Republican lawmakers denied that the changes were made for partisan reasons.
In February, U.S. Chief District Court Judge James C. Dever III dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the plaintiffs failed to show the new lines violated constitutional requirements.
The Wake County Board of Elections contends that the appellate decision is at odds with U.S. Supreme Court decisions that recognize that politics is a legitimate factor in redistricting. Election officials point to how the districts are under the 10 percent population variance generally allowed by the Supreme Court.
“The panel majority’s opinion will encourage partisan-based challenges to redistricting plans that include any population deviations, a result that will burden the ability of elections boards to plan for and administer elections,” Charles Marshall, the Wake board’s attorney, said in the motion.
But the plaintiffs contend that the ruling shouldn’t be delayed because “time is running out for the implementation of the Court’s judgment.”
“Plaintiffs believe that there exists a simple and easily-implemented remedy – reinstitution of the constitutional prior plans for election of members of both boards – and immediate issuance of the mandate will facilitate the implementation of that remedy,” Anita Earls, attorney for the plaintiffs, wrote in her motion.
Earls, who is executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, proposes that the two new regional districts be declared void. She also suggests the three at-large commissioner races on the ballot for two-year terms be restored to the four-year terms that would have occurred under the old maps.
For the school board, Earls proposes that Districts 3, 4, 5, 6 and 8 be put on the Nov. 8 ballot for three-year terms with candidates filing in August. Those seats were originally going to be on the 2015 ballot for four-year terms before the legislature intervened.
Earls also proposed that Districts 1, 2, 7 and 9 go on the 2017 ballot for four-year terms, which would have occurred under the old lines.
She said the plaintiffs are also opposed to the request from Berger and Moore to join the lawsuit.
Berger and Moore’s predecessor, House Speaker Thom Tillis, had initially fought against being added as defendants. Berger and Moore had also cited legislative immunity during the federal trial on the maps.
In their announcement, Berger and Moore attacked State Attorney General Roy Cooper, the Democratic candidate for governor.
“Roy Cooper has once again refused to do his job and defend state law – this time creating chaos, confusion and uncertainty for Wake County voters at the 11th hour in an election year,” Berger and Moore said in a written statement. “That’s why we have no choice but to intervene and defend the right of voters to cast their ballots for geographically diverse representation in Wake County government in November.”
Cooper isn’t defending the maps because the state was dropped as a defendant in the case.
“He did his job so well that his attorneys got the case dismissed against the state and state plaintiffs,” said Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for Cooper.
Staff writer Colin Campbell contributed