Politics & Government

NC legislature to begin work on new congressional maps Monday

1st and 12th Congressional Districts
1st and 12th Congressional Districts

The North Carolina legislature will hold meetings starting Monday to draft new congressional maps in response to a court order, House Speaker Tim Moore announced Friday afternoon.

Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger said in a news release that they still hope the U.S. Supreme Court will issue a stay that allows them to avoid a lower court’s deadline next Friday to produce new maps.

But if the high court doesn’t act, the full House and Senate will return to Raleigh on Thursday and Friday for a rare special session.

“Due to the extremely tight deadline imposed on us by the federal trial court, we are being forced to hope for the best but prepare for the worst,” Rep. David Lewis and Sen. Bob Rucho said in a joint statement.

U.S. District Judges William Osteen of Greensboro and Max Cogburn of Asheville along with U.S. Circuit Judge Roger Gregory of Virginia ruled last week in a lawsuit that the GOP-led legislature had relied too heavily on race to draw the boundaries for the 1st and 12th congressional districts in 2011.

The court ordered the legislature to approve new maps by the end of next week. Legislators appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Chief Justice John Roberts has given plaintiffs in the lawsuit until Tuesday to file a response.

Legislative leaders say redrawing maps would result in “chaos and costliness” because absentee voting is already under way for the March 15 primary.

If Roberts were to grant the legislators’ request to stay the lower court ruling, legislators wouldn’t need to draw new maps immediately.

“We are confident, and have been advised to be confident, that our plan as enacted in 2011 is constitutional, and we’re frankly still expecting a stay,” Lewis said.

Nonetheless, the map drawing process will begin Monday with public hearings set for 10 a.m. at six sites across the state, including the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh and Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte.

No redistricting proposals will be released before the hearings, which are a legal requirement to gather input into how districts will be drawn. Legislators also will accept written comments submitted online at ncleg.net.

On Tuesday, a newly formed 36-member Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting will meet in Raleigh “to discuss the public feedback and consider next steps,” according to the news release from Moore and Berger.

Lewis and Rucho, who led the process of drawing the current maps, will co-chair that committee. Rep. Bert Jones, a Reidsville Republican, and Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca will serve as vice chairs. The committee includes six Democrats from each chamber.

A schedule sent to House members tentatively set a special session for Thursday and Friday. Gov. Pat McCrory would need to formally call for such a session, and that’s when the full House and Senate would vote on new maps – but only if the Supreme Court doesn’t act before Thursday.

“This is a process that normally takes months to do, and because of this decision we’ve been given a very compressed deadline, where we essentially have a week for what normally would take months,” Moore said Friday, adding that his staff plans to work through the weekend.

Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat who was appointed to the redistricting committee, said legislative leaders should have started sooner.

“They could have gotten on this a week ago, rather than focusing their attention on seeking stays,” McKissick said. “It would give me serious concerns if there’s not sufficient opportunity to allow meaningful public input.”

N.C. Republican Party executive director Dallas Woodhouse said his party plans to push for districts that keep the current congressional delegation makeup of 10 Republicans and three Democrats. And he said new district lines shouldn’t be based on race.

“We will advocate a complete colorblind drawing of the map where no racial considerations are made whatsoever,” he said.

But McKissick said legislators should instead try to restore the 1st and 12th districts to the somewhat lower percentages of black voters they had before redistricting. That would restore more black voters to neighboring districts, increasing their voting influence there.

“I think that race is a valid consideration under the Voting Rights Act,” he said. “I think we should make certain that African-American voters have opportunities to elect candidates of choice.”

Lewis said he expects legislators could struggle to figure out what the federal judges want to see changed in new districts.

“It’s our intent with this process to receive input from the public about what the public thinks, and to also do our best to grapple with a federal court decision that, essentially, says ‘we don’t like the districts’ but provides no guidelines, no curative language for what they would accept,” he said.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter