Politics & Government

Lawsuit calls for new 2020 state House and Senate districts in North Carolina

Common Cause and the North Carolina Democratic Party are suing for state House and Senate districts to be redrawn for the 2020 election, claiming the districts are partisan gerrymanders that violate the state constitution.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday morning in Wake County Superior Court against state legislative leaders and the state elections board.

It will likely eventually be heard in the state Supreme Court. With the election of Anita Earls last week, Democrats will hold a 5-2 advantage on the state’s highest court.

“North Carolina’s state legislative maps are among the worst partisan gerrymanders in North Carolina’s history, and indeed, in American history,” said Stanton Jones, a lawyer with the Washington, D.C., law firm Arnold & Porter.

“In drawing the maps, Republicans in the General Assembly discriminated against Democratic voters on the basis of their political beliefs and their prior votes,” Jones said at a Tuesday news conference. “This practice of partisan gerrymandering needs to stop.”

Several lawsuits challenging legislative and congressional districts as racial or partisan gerrymanders have been filed over the last seven years.

“This isn’t about ‘good government’ – it’s about power,” Pat Ryan, Senate leader Phil Berger’s spokesman, said in an email. “Democrats had no problem with the process they employed for over 100 years until they lost control of the General Assembly in 2010.

‘This suit is a corrupt attempt at judicial gerrymandering, hoping the liberal state court will rewrite the Constitution and draw maps favorable to Democrats. And the newest judge on our state Supreme Court should recuse herself from hearing any matters in this case because it would be a conflict of interest to rule on an issue over which she herself sued the legislature. You can’t be both a player and a referee.”

Earls is a former executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and had a role in lawsuits challenging state legislative and congressional districts as partisan and racial gerrymanders, The News & Observer has reported.

House Speaker Tim Moore’s office did not comment on the lawsuit’s claims but his spokesman Joseph Kyzer said in an email, “The Speaker’s office is focused on serving the North Carolina voters this endless stream of litigation seeks to circumvent.”

The lawsuit seeks to throw out House and Senate districts the legislature approved in 2017 to comply with a federal court ruling striking down the previous districts as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.

The new lawsuit challenges districts statewide, including House districts in Mecklenburg and Wake counties.

The lawsuit says Republicans “pack” Democratic voters into districts so Democratic candidates win overwhelmingly, or “crack” Democratic voters by parceling them out over two or more districts, diluting their power and giving Republican candidates advantages.

The lawsuit calls the Mecklenburg House districts “the pinnacle of packing,” where Democrats are packed into seven districts to make Republicans competitive in four others. The legislature packed Democrats into six Wake House districts to maximize Republican competitiveness in four, the lawsuit said.

In last week’s election, Democratic candidates won nearly all Mecklenburg and Wake House districts, and one had the lead in the remaining Mecklenburg district.

“Only North Carolina Democrats would file a lawsuit to overturn districts that they just won,” state Republican Party executive director Dallas Woodhouse said in a prepared statement.

Democrats’ victories don’t undermine the legal arguments that the districts are unconstitutional, said Daniel Jacobson, a lawyer with Arnold & Porter.

“The fact that it happened to be a particularly strong year for the Democratic Party — a wave for that one year — or that the gerrymandering didn’t work out exactly as they planned in no way undermines the fact that it’s unconstitutional to be discriminating against people and to be sorting people into different districts with the intent of burdening them and harming them,” Jacobson said.

The lawsuit is based on provisions of the state constitution, which offer more protections than the U.S. Constitution, said Edwin Speas, the lawyer representing the state Democratic Party, Common Cause and individual plaintiffs.

“Every voter in North Carolina has equal voting power,” said Speas, paraphrasing a state Supreme Court redistricting opinion in a case Republicans won.

Republicans hired Thomas Hofeller, a redistricting expert, to draw the last six state and congressional redistricting plans, Speas said.

“His purpose was to penalize Democrats for having expressed their opinions at the polls, to treat Democrats differently than Republicans because of the way they voted,” Speas said.

Hofeller, whom Speas called a “political operative,” was known nationally for drawing district lines that helped Republican candidates. He died in August.

Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that its U.S. House districts were gerrymandered and violated a clause in the Pennsylvania constitution requiring “free and equal” elections. Lawyers with Arnold & Porter represented the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and individual voters in that case.

In late August, a federal three-judge panel ruled in Common Cause’s favor in a partisan gerrymandering case involving North Carolina’s congressional districts. The judges decided it was too close to the November election to redraw district boundaries, but said the current lines cannot be used in 2020.

Bonner: 919-829-4821; @Lynn_Bonner
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