RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Ahead of this week’s crucial state Supreme Court hearing on the new electoral district maps, a Republican group began running digital ads Monday calling on Democratic Justice Sam Ervin to recuse himself from the case.
Ervin, who is up for re-election this year, is among three justices out of seven on the court facing recusal requests for various reasons.
The ad, titled “Call It Fair,” was produced by the Republican State Leadership Committee, which works to get Republicans elected in state-level races. It will be seen primarily by people in Raleigh and those who view the hearing Wednesday morning on the Supreme Court’s YouTube page.
In December, the Supreme Court abruptly stopped all candidates from being able to file to run for office amid the various legal challenges to the districts Republicans drew for Congress and the General Assembly. The court also delayed this year’s primary election to May 17.
The court never made clear which justices decided to do that. The Supreme Court is comprised of four Democrats and three Republicans.
Ervin had filed to run for re-election before candidate filing was suspended. In the ad, the RSLC says the decision to stop filing and delay the primary could help Ervin in his re-election effort.
“When the Supreme Court, or any court for that matter, wades into political matters like this it becomes political as a result. But, bear in mind, Supreme Court justices are elected,” said state House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland).
Republicans also have called for Democratic Justice Anita Earls to recuse herself, as well, noting her past statements critical of election-related laws Republicans passed and her ties to former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who runs a group that has helped to pay for legal costs associated with gerrymandering cases.
Democrats have called on Republican Justice Phil Berger Jr. to recuse himself from the case, as well, noting his father is the leader of the state Senate and his re-election prospects are affected by how the district lines are drawn.
When asked about that, Moore said, “I know, of course, Sen. Berger very well, and I know Justice Berger reasonably well. And, I would bet you that they’re not having conversations about this, they’re not discussing this case.”
“I’ve never seen this kind of public campaign against individual justices,” said Meredith College political analyst David McLennan. “I think it could raise questions about the justices’ objectivity and legal judgment and that could be used by both sides.”
Under an order released in late December, the justices determined that it’s up to each of them to decide on their own whether to recuse themselves from a case. A justice can choose to put that decision up to a vote for the other six to consider.
Late Monday, the three justices who had been asked to recuse themselves from the gerrymandering case all said they will not do that, meaning all seven justices will hear the case Wednesday.
“What we’re all experiencing is the increased emphasis on the courts as being a political operation,” said McLennan. “The courts are seen as partisan as the legislature and the executive branch. So, I think people are just approaching the court system so differently. They’re talking about court cases as if they were bills in the legislature.”
The plaintiffs in the case have accused Republicans of “extreme partisan gerrymandering” and intentionally drawing the new districts to help them win seats in Congress and maintain control of the General Assembly.
Earlier this month, the non-partisan group RepresentUs began its own digital ad campaign urging the Supreme Court to reject the maps Republicans drew but not calling on any justices to recuse themselves.
“Really, we want to explain to folks what’s going on and what the stakes are with gerrymandering in North Carolina,” said James Pearce, North Carolina state director for RepresentUs. “What we just really want to see coming out of this process is, one, the courts granting the state and the people and the voters here fair maps and, two, people really understanding on a better, deeper level how bad gerrymandering has been in this state.”
In early January, a trial court in Wake County upheld the maps Republicans drew. However, in their decision, they also noted that many of the districts they drew were examples of “intentional, pro-Republican partisan redistricting.”
Democrats are hopeful the Supreme Court will see that and determine that the districts are unconstitutional.
If that happens, the court could order the legislature to redraw them.
Republicans have raised concerns that there may not be enough time to do that and still proceed with the May primary. They passed a bill earlier this month to delay the primary further to June 7, which Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed last week.
In a statement, he said, “This bill is an additional attempt by Republican legislators to control the election timeline and undermine the voting process. The constitutionality of congressional and legislative districts is now in the hands of the North Carolina Supreme Court and the Court should have the opportunity to decide how much time is needed to ensure that our elections are constitutional.”