Under the Dome

Cooper says he’ll call special session on redistricting

Gov. Roy Cooper at a news conference in the Executive Mansion in Raleigh in March.
Gov. Roy Cooper at a news conference in the Executive Mansion in Raleigh in March. cseward@newsobserver.com

Gov. Roy Cooper, trying to put pressure on lawmakers to redraw state House and Senate election maps within the next two weeks, said he would call for a 14-day special session of the legislature.

The session Cooper plans to call would run simultaneously with the ongoing regular session, which is due to end some time this summer. He said such a concurrent session is rare but not unprecedented.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday affirmed a lower court ruling that found 28 legislative districts to be illegal racial gerrymanders that diluted the overall influence of black voters.

“That means Republican politicians have been picking their voters instead of voters picking their politicians,” Cooper said Wednesday. “They’ve rigged the system and it’s just wrong.”

But the justices vacated an order by the lower court to redraw the maps and hold special elections in 2017 in the changed districts. That three-judge panel will now reconsider the means of correcting the problem.

Cooper said the special session would start Thursday.

Republicans Ralph Hise, a state senator from Mitchell County who heads the select committee on elections, and David Lewis, a House member from Harnett County who helped lead the redistricting in 2011, noted that the three-judge panel had not yet ordered new maps.

“Gov. Cooper has no constitutional role in redistricting, and we have no order from the courts to redraw maps by his preferred timeline,” Hise and Lewis said in their joint statement. “This is a clear political stunt meant to deter lawmakers from our work on raising teacher pay, providing relief to the communities affected by Hurricane Matthew and putting money back into the pockets of middle-class families.

“We are already in session, and will continue to focus on this important work.”

State law calls for courts to give lawmakers 14 days to draw voting maps before judges are allowed to step in and take over the task themselves. Cooper told a roomful of news media on Wednesday afternoon that if lawmakers don’t come up with new maps to fix the racial gerrymanders during the special session, the courts should be allowed to draw the maps.

“We have fought for too long over these maps,” Cooper said at the brief news conference. “Let’s put an end to it and create districts that are fair for North Carolina voters. The sooner we start, the sooner we can end the bickering and focus on important policies and priorities.”

Attorneys representing the Republican lawmakers who led the drawing of the 2011 maps that were struck down told the justices last month that it would be difficult to get maps drawn and hold elections by 2017.

Challengers of the 19 gerrymandered House districts and nine Senate districts have argued that North Carolinians have suffered too long from legislation adopted by lawmakers elected with unconstitutional maps.

Cooper pointed out laws passed during the past six years by the legislature that he disagrees with: budgets, spending tax dollars on private school vouchers, the 2013 elections law overhaul that recently was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, the LGBT law House Bill 2 that sparked protests, boycotts and lawsuits, making it illegal to expand Medicaid and recent laws that shift power that had been in the executive branch and that he said “manipulate and intimidate the courts.”

“It’s time that North Carolinians be represented fairly so that our legislature is no longer making headlines for the wrong reasons,” Cooper said. “The first step toward leveling the playing field of our democracy is drawing a new map.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican, said he did not think the Supreme Court decision this week created the “extraordinary occasion” required by the state Constitution to have the special session, and advised against it.

“Given the current posture of the legal case surrounding the North Carolina House and Senate districts, I believe it would be premature to call an extra session of the General Assembly at this time,” Forest said in a statement. “The only ruling currently in place requires the districts to be redrawn prior to the November 2018 elections. ... An extra session at this time is premature.”

Ruthy Jones, of Durham, is one of several speakers to crowd of over 200 supporters in rally sponsored by Common Cause.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1