Court approves new legislative maps, blocks congressional map

Former Attorney General Eric Holder is backing litigation attacking GOP-drawn districts nationwide

Destin Hall David Lewis Redistricting
Rep. Destin Hall (R-Caldwell) and Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) speak during a Senate committee hearing on redistricting and elections on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. (Robert Clark for the North State Journal)

RALEIGH — A three-judge panel on Monday approved so-called remedial maps drawn by the legislature after the same court ruled the prior maps to be an unconstitutional political gerrymander. Following the court’s first ruling, the N.C. General Assembly quickly redrew the maps that the court affirmed Monday.

In the order, the court found that the 21 Senate districts and 56 House districts were properly redrawn. The court said it was “satisfied that the process chosen and implemented by both the House and Senate… comported with the procedural requirements of the Court’s Judgment.” The court further found that the “efforts made by the General Assembly to ensure the remedial process was conducted in public view were reasonable and complied with the Court’s mandate.”

The 25-page order also found that no partisan consideration or election results data was used in the drawing of the maps.

In last month’s ruling, the judges declared GOP lawmakers fashioned boundaries to entrench the party’s majorities in both chambers, discriminating against Democrats by weakening their votes and denying their rights to participate in elections free from interference.

Initial reviews by redistricting experts of the maps approved by the General Assembly showed they were less skewed toward Republicans than the current plans but didn’t necessarily signal Democratic majorities were likely. Republicans took sole control of both chambers for the first time in 140 years in 2011 while running in districts drawn by Democrats who had held the legislative majority.

In a joint statement, State House Redistricting Committee co-chairs Rep. Destin Hall (R-Caldwell) and Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) said: “We appreciate this court’s recognition that a historically transparent and bipartisan redistricting process complied with its order entirely.”

While the legislature may not have more work to do on their own electoral maps, they will likely have more drawing to do after the same three judges halted any preparation for the 2020 congressional elections and primaries.

The panel of three Superior Court judges issued a preliminary injunction preventing elections under the district lines, starting with the March 3 primary.

In the ruling Monday, the judges — Paul Ridgeway, Alma Hinton and Joseph Crosswhite — agreed that “there is a substantial likelihood that plaintiffs will prevail on the merits of this action by showing beyond a reasonable doubt that the 2016 congressional districts are extreme partisan gerrymanders” in violation of the North Carolina Constitution.

The judges gave no date by which a new map must be drawn, but suggested lawmakers could redraw them on their own quickly to ensure congressional primaries be held as scheduled. The State Board of Elections has said lines needed to be finalized by Dec. 15.

“The court respectfully urges the General Assembly to adopt an expeditious process,” the judges wrote.

Republican state legislators made plain when they drew that map that the lines were designed to help the GOP retain 10 of the state’s 13 congressional seats, but argued such strategies weren’t unlawful. Republican defendants in the lawsuit and three sitting GOP U.S. House members opposed the injunction request.

The judges’ ruling, which could be appealed, would likely lead to a map with more competitive districts for the November race — making it more difficult for national Republicans to retake control of the U.S. House. The lawsuit is being bankrolled by a national Democratic group led by former Attorney General Eric Holder.

Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican, said he wasn’t surprised by the congressional ruling given the recent decision involving the legislative districts, calling it judicial activism and a “flawed approach to redistricting law.” Berger said he expected the legislature would likely redraw the map, but no decision has been made.

“House lawmakers are reviewing yesterday’s order in Harper v. Lewis and will have further comment in the coming days,” said Joseph Kyzer, spokesman for Speaker Tim Moore.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.