Politics & Government

A bipartisan group of former NC governors urges court to reject partisan gerrymanders

For the second time in two years, a bipartisan group of former North Carolina governors has come together to weigh in on a major state issue — this time partisan gerrymandering.

Former Republican Gov. Jim Martin joined Democratic Govs. Jim Hunt, Mike Easley and Bev Perdue this week in filing a court brief opposing the practice in a case that put gerrymandering on trial.

Former GOP Gov. Pat McCrory chose not to take part.

The governors joined plaintiffs in Common Cause v Lewis, a case challenging the state’s 2017 legislative districts as partisan gerrymanders by Republican lawmakers.

A trial ended in July. Judges could rule by September.

Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein, both Democrats, also filed a brief against the partisan districts. And legislative leaders filed their own brief on Thursday, arguing that Democrats and their allies brought the case “not to vindicate democracy but to tear it apart.”

Last year all five former governors came together to oppose two proposed constitutional amendments they say would have limited executive power. They raised money, cut commercials and held news conferences. Voters rejected both amendments in November.

In their brief, the four governors — who led the state for 36 consecutive years from 1977 to 2013 — said gerrymandering has hurt the state.

“Partisan rancor and legislative attacks on the other branches are no longer temporary,” they wrote. “They have become the new normal. . . . Increasingly sophisticated gerrymanders produce increasingly partisan legislators — legislators who are beholden to the sectarian interests of the party leaders who draw their district lines and the very small number of voters who are most likely to vote in primary elections.”

Martin said people in both parties see gerrymandering as a problem.

“I hope this brief will do some good to show that there’s bipartisan support (for change),” he told the Observer. “For decades the Democrats were happy to design districts for their advantage … And the truth is members of both parties are opposed to gerrymandering when they’re in the minority.”

McCrory’s concerns

In a statement, Hunt said partisan gerrymandering “skews our system of governance by discouraging compromise, increasing divisiveness, dissuading capable citizens from seeking office, and eroding the faith our citizens have in our government.”

In a text message to the Observer, McCrory said he considered joining his colleagues but disagreed with key arguments: that partisan districting jeopardizes the constitutional separation of powers and that gerrymandering “requires a new solution — a judicial solution.”

The governors’ brief argues that by skewing legislative elections, gerrymandering can lead to an “ill-gotten legislative supermajority” that can encroach on executive power. The governors argue that lawmakers did just that in 2018 by proposing the since-defeated constitutional amendments.

It also urges courts to step in: “Only in that way can our courts fulfill their most fundamental duty: to save our constitutional system from destruction.”

“I disagreed with separation of powers arguments presented by our lawyers and strongly disagreed with liberal plaintiffs keeping options open to allow judges to draw districts,” McCrory texted.

“We need a process to agree on implementing basic standards . . . which in turn would reduce (the) number of non-competitive general elections. Both Republicans and Democrats ... have participated in this political charade.”

Common Cause itself filed a brief Wednesday night asking judges to appoint a third-party special master to draw new non-partisan districts by Oct. 4.

GOP argument

In their own brief, legislative Republicans argued that the General Assembly, not the courts, is the place to deal with redistricting. And they refer to Cooper’s earlier role on a legislative committee charged with drawing districts when Democrats were in power as well as to Easley’s name on a congressional redistricting case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2001.

Cooper chaired the Senate Redistricting Committee in the 1990s, a time when the 12th Congressional District faced repeated court challenges.

“(T)hat was then (when Democrats drew the lines) and this is now (since Republicans drew the lines),” their brief says. “They do not want a fair process; they want to win. These filings lay bare that this case is a political fight in its purest form, and no legal standard enables this Court to pick a winner. Nor should it try.”

“We have great respect for Gov. Martin, and it’s disappointing that our conversations with him seem to only take place through legal briefs and media interviews,” said Pat Ryan, a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger.

Martin said he favors an independent redistricting commission. There are a half-dozen non-partisan redistricting bills that have been introduced this year in the General Assembly.

In 2011 a similar bill passed the Republican-controlled House but stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate.

Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.
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