Under the Dome

Federal court leaves open possibility for special elections in NC this year

NC Senate leader Phil Berger left, and former Sen. Bob Rucho are among those named in a lawsuit in which 28 N.C. legislative distircts were found to be racially gerrymanders.
NC Senate leader Phil Berger left, and former Sen. Bob Rucho are among those named in a lawsuit in which 28 N.C. legislative distircts were found to be racially gerrymanders. N&O file

The three federal judges who could decide whether North Carolina will have special elections this year in state legislative races issued notice Friday that they plan to act quickly.

The memorandum comes four days after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling unanimously affirming that 28 of North Carolina’s districts used to elect members to the state Senate and state House of Representatives are illegal racial gerrymanders that diluted the overall power of black voters.

The challengers of the 2011 redistricting plan submitted a request on Thursday to the three-judge panel asking for quick resolution to fix the gerrymandered districts.

In their request, the challengers told the judges that legislative leaders were opposed to their request, that the state Board of Elections had no position on the matter, and “that the State of North Carolina ‘agrees that the public interest calls for a prompt decision on the possibility of a special election in 2017.’ 

Such a stance could raise new questions about who represents the state – the legislative branch or the executive branch.

Gov. Roy Cooper, the Democrat at the helm of the executive branch, called a special 14-day session this week for the legislative branch to draw new maps to correct the racial gerrymandered districts that have been used for the past three election cycles. The legislators quickly canceled the session.

“The parties are advised that the Court intends to act promptly on this matter upon obtaining jurisdiction from the Supreme Court,” the memorandum released on Friday states and asks the legislative leaders, the state elections board and “the state” to submit statements that address the concerns of the challengers “as expeditiously as possible.”

Among the questions the court invites the parties to answer are:

▪ The “severity and nature” of the illegal gerrymanders.

▪ “The extent of the likely disruption to the ordinary processes of governance if early elections are imposed” and how much leeway the judges should have to impose special elections this year.

▪ Who has the authority to speak for the state – the legislative branch, the governor’s office, the state attorney general or state board of elections when addressing such questions as to how quickly new districts should be drawn, who should be tasked with drawing them and whether there are any additional remedies for correcting the illegal gerrymanders to be considered by the court.

The questions arise less than a week after the U.S. Supreme Court issued an order rejecting the three-judge panel’s order filed late last year that called for new districts to be drawn by mid-March and elections held this year in any of the changed districts.

In its order earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court said the three-judge panel considered “inequities” caused by the gerrymandered maps and the great costs of ordering special elections “in only the most cursory fashion.”

“(T)he court simply announced that ‘(w)hile special elections have costs,’ those unspecified costs ‘pale in comparison’ to the prospect that citizens will be ‘represented by legislators elected pursuant to a racial gerrymander,’ ” the order states. “That minimal reasoning would appear to justify a special election in every racial-gerrymandering case – a result clearly at odds with our demand for careful case-specific analysis. For that reason, we cannot have confidence that the court adequately grappled with the interests on both sides of the remedial question before us.”

In court filings in late May, attorneys for state lawmakers argued against holding elections in 2017, saying it would be “exceedingly difficult (if not entirely unrealistic)” to draw new maps and hold elections in any new districts by November.

On Friday, Cooper issued a statement: “I'm pleased the court intends to act swiftly,” he said. “There is no reason for Republican legislators to drag their heels in correcting this wrong after the Supreme Court affirmed their map to be unconstitutional.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1