RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – A panel of judges declined on Friday to delay the March primary election or to block the new district maps Republicans in the General Assembly approved last month.
In a pair of lawsuits filed by the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters and by a group of voters being represented by Democratic attorney Marc Elias, attorneys argued Republicans illegally gerrymandered the Congressional and state legislative districts to benefit their party in upcoming elections.
While announcing the panel’s decision, Superior Court Judge Graham Shirley described partisan gerrymandering as an “ill” but said the judges also had a “reasonable doubt” as to whether the General Assembly’s actions were unconstitutional. Superior Court judges Nathaniel Poovey and Dawn Layton also are on the panel.
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Elias tweeted soon after the decision was announced that there would be an appeal.
Independent experts who analyzed the Congressional map found Republicans are favored to win at least 10 of the state’s 14 seats despite North Carolina being a purple state.
“When you nonetheless get the skew that we see in these maps, it’s because the General Assembly intended to put it there,” said Zach Schauff, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
Phil Strach, an attorney representing the Republican legislative leaders, pointed out that they chose to conduct the map-drawing process in public and broadcast that live online. He also said Republican voters tend to be more spread out across the state, which can give an advantage as well.
“Popping up on Twitter, people would be commenting on it in real time. People had the ability to influence the districts in real time because it was done in the public that way,” he said.
Judge Shirley questioned Strach about the Princeton Gerrymandering Project giving the state’s maps a grade of F.
He also asked about the various analyses showing the advantage Republicans have in winning majorities based on the makeup of the districts.
Strach countered, “The guesstimates are all over the board.”
Judge Shirley responded, “Are there any guesstimates in favor of the Democrats?”
Strach said, “I haven’t seen any. That’s a fair point.”
House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) called Friday’s decision “a huge win for North Carolina voters.”
“We are very pleased with the court’s ruling today. It is good news for North Carolina, and now it is time to move forward so that the election process can begin and the people of North Carolina can make their voices heard,” he said in a statement.
Former governors weigh in
In a related case this week, a bipartisan group of former governors from across the country filed a brief opposing the maps Republican drew.
Former North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley (D) and former Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) were among them, arguing that partisan gerrymandering deprives voters of competitive elections and the ability to hold their elected representatives accountable.
“It defeats the democratic process. And, people get upset with it and they should be. It’s a dishonest system,” Easley said in an interview. “So, when you’ve got a 50-50 state, why do you keep coming up with maps that give one party 70 percent or more of the seats?”
Easley joined other former governors from North Carolina in speaking out against the district maps that Republicans approved a decade ago as well. They were the subject of litigation for years, with courts tossing the Congressional maps out twice for unconstitutional gerrymandering.
“Across the country, people are so divided. I think gerrymandering is one of the root causes,” he said. “That’s unfair and it leads to disharmony. And, it leads to people’s lack of confidence in the government.”
Easley says the ability for gerrymandering to produce a Republican supermajority in the legislature once again concerns him.
“The court has an interest in this because supermajorities affect them too. You can impeach a judge. There’s already been talk of impeaching Judge Lee over the Leandro case,” he said. “This is a very dangerous discussion that we’re having right now. And, that’s why the court has to step up to act. And, I think the quicker they act, the more likely it is that the legislature gets the message that we have to change this.”
Speaker Moore in an interview defended the work Republicans did on the maps.
“We don’t have gerrymandered districts. You can look at states that have these things that look crazy, have lines that go here and there but North Carolina didn’t do that,” he said. “We followed the law and had an open and transparent process.”