RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Following the state Supreme Court’s order to delay next year’s primary and fast-track the case challenging the new electoral districts, Republican legislators called the timeframe “impossible” on Thursday.
The court, which is majority Democratic, issued an order Wednesday moving the primary from March 8 to May 17 and ordering a lower court to hold proceedings and issue a ruling on the legal challenges to the districts by Jan. 11.
“But when courts are putting out orders like this, it’s one of those things that it at least looks to most observers like they’ve baked in the results before they’ve heard any case whatsoever. And I don’t know that if that’s true that the arguments even matter at all,” said Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), one of the state legislators who led the redistricting process. “I just want to emphasize how unusual this is and to say how unique this is in the actions of the court. And, quite frankly it smells.”
Nonpartisan and Democratic groups have sued Republicans, accusing them of unconstitutionally gerrymandering the new districts for the General Assembly and the state’s 14 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
There’s been no ruling yet on the validity of the maps, but just in the last week there have been conflicting orders issued as candidates began filing for office:
-On Friday, Dec. 3, a three-judge panel in Wake County declined to delay the primary as the judges said they had a “reasonable doubt” as to whether the plaintiffs would prevail in their case.
-On Monday, Dec. 6, minutes before the filing period began, a panel on the Court of Appeals suspended filing for state legislative and Congressional races. The court did not disclose which judges were on the panel.
-Later that same day, the Court of Appeals, which is majority Republican, issued a new order restarting the filing period. Once again, there was no information given about how each judge on the court voted.
-On Wednesday, Dec. 8, the state Supreme Court ordered the primary be delayed and set up the timeline for the trial court to consider the case, calling for a decision by Jan. 11. The Supreme Court is majority Democratic, but the order did not say how each justice voted on the issue. A spokesman for the court system declined to give any information. The justices also ordered that any notice of appeal of the trial court’s decision go directly to them within two business days.
“That’s fairly unheard of in terms of past dynamics that we have seen in North Carolina, so we may be entering a new phase of how the courts are dealing with redistricting litigation,” said Dr. Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College who has studied the state’s history of redistricting. “We’re just going to have to wait and see over the next month, which is actually a fairly compressed timeframe for a trial of this magnitude to be held.”
He said the Supreme Court’s order also makes it more likely there’s a resolution as to whether the maps will stand before people begin voting in the 2022 election. After Republicans drew the maps in 2011, it wasn’t until 2016 that a court deemed the Congressional districts to be unconstitutional and ordered Republicans to redraw them.
Bitzer says this time if judges order the legislature to draw the districts again early next year, that could lead to significant changes in who ends up running for various offices in 2022.
“That dynamic may prove that something new happens and we could get an entirely new batch of candidates throwing their hats into the ring,” he said.
U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC 1st District), who recently announced his retirement from Congress after Republicans drew him into a much more competitive district, said Thursday he was glad the Supreme Court delayed the primary.
“We were expecting a bad map. But, we were not expecting a map that was extremely gerrymandered. This is a terrible map,” he said. “The net result is the Republicans have a slam dunk in this map. And unless the courts call them to account, this will be the map for the next ten years.”
If the court orders the maps to be redrawn next year, he said that would not affect his decision to retire.
“My decision is final. It’s firm,” he said. “It is now time for me to pass the baton to a fresh face, someone with fresh ideas. And now is the time to do it. I’m not going to delay it any longer whether or not the map improves or it doesn’t improve.”
He said plans to endorse a candidate “rather soon” but wants to see what the final Congressional map is first.
During a hearing last week, attorneys for the plaintiffs in these cases accused Republicans of “extreme” partisan gerrymandering.
The Republicans have denied using partisan data in creating the maps, but various independent analyses have shown them to be favored to win at least 10 of the state’s 14 Congressional seats despite North Carolina being a purple state.
“I don’t think we can necessarily define a fair map, but I think we can look at what would be an outlier map,” said Dr. Bitzer. “And, if it’s typically more of an outlier, I think that that is when the courts will look at it and say this is too much partisanship developed into the redistricting maps.”
Republicans split the state’s three largest counties (Wake, Mecklenburg and Guilford) each into three different Congressional districts.
“Some would argue that what the Republicans did with Guilford was basically crack Democratic votes,” said Bitzer. “Guilford County was one prime example of the dynamics at play there.”
State Sen. Wiley Nickel (D-Wake), who is running for Congress next year, said he thinks it’s likely the maps ultimately will be struck down.
“Now we are on a process where the courts are going to look at this extreme partisan gerrymander and let the voters choose their politicians and not the other way around,” he said. “It was an extreme partisan gerrymander. It robbed the voters of any real choice at the ballot box and the courts saw through what they were doing.”