State Politics

NC lawsuits testing political gerrymandering claims moving toward summer trial

Two North Carolina lawsuits questioning the breadth to which lawmakers can design congressional districts for partisan gain are on path toward a summer trial.

A panel of three federal judges issued a ruling on Friday rejecting a request by N.C. lawmakers to dismiss the cases filed last year by Common Cause and the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, two organizations that have been critical of partisan gerrymandering by both parties.

The federal judges — James Wynn of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. District Judges William Osteen Jr. and W. Earl Britt — noted the novelty of the arguments put forward in the cases challenging the maps drawn and approved by the Republican-led General Assembly in 2016. But they also noted “obstacles the plaintiffs must overcome to prevail.”

“Mindful that ‘courts should be especially reluctant to dismiss on the basis of the pleadings when the asserted theory of liability is novel’ ... we conclude that neither of these arguments supports dismissal at this juncture,” the judges stated in their 29-page ruling.

The courts have allowed for partisan advantage in the drawing of new legislative and congressional districts through the years, but also left open the possibility that at some point there might be a need for further judicial review of the extent of such favor for a political party.

In North Carolina, the questions arose in 2016 after a different panel of federal judges ruled that some of the congressional districts drawn in 2011 were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. Race cannot play a driving role in the shaping of voting districts. Though that case is pending at the U.S. Supreme Court, the legislators were ordered to draw new districts, which they did in a special session in February 2016.

While redrawing the districts to satisfy the federal court order, Republican state lawmakers emphasized that the new lines were meant to keep Republicans in control of 10 seats in North Carolina’s delegation, leaving three seats for Democrats.

Common Cause filed a lawsuit in August, followed by the League of Women Voters in September. The federal court decided to hear the cases in tandem.

Among the contentions in the lawsuits is that drawing districts with political affiliation playing such a key role shifts some voters into districts where their votes won’t matter, either because their party’s candidate can’t win or already is certain to win.

Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, praised the ruling in a statement.

“Our clients want to see government returned to rule by the will of the people instead of a system plagued by partisan manipulation,” Earls said.

The Republican leaders have defended the 2016 maps, saying they split fewer precincts and kept more counties whole than many of the previous district plans.

The trial is set to begin on June 26 in Greensboro.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1