North Carolina redistricting arguments heard by judges

Thursday, July 27, 2017
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North Carolina redistricting arguments are heard by judges in Greensboro.

GREENSBORO, North Carolina (WTVD) -- Running out of time - and patience - a panel of three federal judges told legislative attorneys on Thursday they don't think Republican lawmakers are moving fast enough to redraw district lines deemed unconstitutional.

In a sharp rebuke, U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles charged that Republicans in the General Assembly "don't seem serious" about the process.

"It's the legislature's fault," Eagles proclaimed. "We ruled on this in 2016. The Supreme Court ruled on this in May. You might think someone would make contingency plans."

For three hours on Thursday, lawyers representing Democratic voters and lawyers representing Republican lawmakers took turns laying out their timelines for how and when district maps should be redrawn. Both the district court and U.S. Supreme Court ruled the maps, originally drawn after the 2010 census, are illegal because they discriminately targeted minority voters by placing them in districts based on race and not geography.

Eagles, appointed by President Barack Obama, was joined by U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge James Wynn (also appointed by Obama) and District Judge Thomas Schroeder (President George W. Bush).

According to the judgment, 18 house districts and nine Senate districts must be redrawn, in addition to the neighboring districts affected by those racially gerrymandered.

"It literally breaks my heart," Channelle James, a Greensboro teacher and lead plaintiff in the case, lamented to ABC11. "It is important that our legislators make decisions and laws because they benefit citizens, not because they benefit themselves.

Anita Earls, James' attorney, asked the court to approve a schedule demanding new legislative districts within the next two weeks, which would lead to primaries on December 5th and a special election on March 6, 2018.

"What price do we put on democracy - what price do we put on the rights of voters assigned to districts on the basis or race?" Earls said outside the courthouse after the hearing. "I don't think the evidence shows the cost is tremendous at all."

Earls called three witnesses to testify on the feasibility of a special election, including Rep. Grier Martin (D-Wake County). "Special elections would not disrupt the legislative process because we just finished the long session and the budget, and the short session doesn't start until much later." Martin told the court. "We've got democratic candidates who would be great candidates and more importantly great legislators ready to go the minute we know where those districts are."

Republicans, for their part, insisted they are committed to redrawing the district lines and following the original court order - which demanded new lines in time for the 2018 November election.

"We have a process in place that balances all factors," legislative attorney Phillip Strach told the panel. "Early elections would put a blow torch to the process and negatively affect the people - and this is about the people."

Instead, Strach argued, Republicans are striving for an open and transparent redistricting process that includes public hearings across the state. "We are committed to this court's order and we are abiding by this court's order."

"As the State Board of Elections made clear today, a special election would conflict with three sets of local elections. Holding these races would be a logistical nightmare resulting in chaos, low turnout, and confusion for candidates and voters," said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, and Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, in a joint statement Thursday.

Earlier this year, Governor Roy Cooper tried unsuccessfully to get the ball rolling, calling a special session for June 8th. Republicans, in rebuke, never read the proclamation and insisted on proceeding on their own timeline.

"The governor has never had a role in redistricting," Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett County), the House Rules Chairman, asserted in June. "The court has not told us what they want us to fix in the maps yet. They haven't provided what's called the mandate or the court order yet."

On Wednesday, Republican lawmakers called a joint committee meeting where Lewis laid down the initial plan for how the state will proceed if the court leaves it up to lawmakers to decide what the criteria should be for the new maps, draw them, and decide when they should be finished.

Regardless of the court's decision, new maps will not last long, as a new U.S. Census is due in 2020, which will reset all measures of populations and lead to new congressional, legislative and judicial maps.

"Today in court and yesterday in committee, the General Assembly set forth a plan for three sets of public hearings held across the state to get input from North Carolinians," Lewis and Hise said Thursday. "We want to listen to voters in impacted areas before finalizing any maps in November. On the other hand, the plaintiffs and the House Democratic Caucus Campaign Chair made clear today that they care more about political advantage than public input or proper election administration."