Slapped twice, legislators face choice

The Observer editorial board

Sen. Bob Rucho on Monday insulted the federal judges from whom he is seeking a stay.
Sen. Bob Rucho on Monday insulted the federal judges from whom he is seeking a stay. 2014 file photo

When a parent reprimands a child for bad behavior, the child has a choice: Straighten up and fly right, or dig in and double down.

Ten days ago, six of North Carolina’s seven Supreme Court justices (three Republicans, three Democrats) agreed that the legislature had overstepped its authority by giving itself, rather than the governor, appointment power over executive-branch commissions.

Exactly one week later, three federal judges on Friday agreed that the legislature had passed an unconstitutionally gerrymandered map of congressional districts.

These are distinct cases, but in each multiple judges found that the legislature acted unconstitutionally in wielding its power.

Now legislative leaders have a choice. They could greatly improve governance in North Carolina by not digging in and doubling down. Rather than being driven by garnering maximum power for themselves, they might see this as an opportunity to make some changes that would help the state.

We’re not optimistic. Not only did the state appeal the redistricting ruling on Monday, but in doing so Sen. Bob Rucho and Rep. David Lewis insulted the very judges from whom they seek a stay. “We trust the federal trial court was not aware an election was already underway…” they said in a strikingly condescending statement.

They might well win a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court; the maps they drew and the resulting court ruling have indeed thrown the March 15 primary into turmoil.

Either way, the episode is further evidence that North Carolina adheres to a poor system for drawing legislative and congressional districts. By guaranteeing most seats for one party or the other, the maps engender a polarized governing body and an alienated electorate.

More than 42 percent of legislative seats will be decided before the November election because one party or the other will not be on the fall ballot in such slanted districts. Six of Mecklenburg County’s 17 legislative seats feature only one name on the ballot in November.

There is a bipartisan push from such notables as former Gov. Jim Martin, former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot and others to switch to an independent redistricting system. Such a plan passed the Republican-led House in 2011 but stalled in the Senate. We hope advocates can persuade Senate leader Phil Berger to fall back in love with the idea. When his party was in the minority, Berger co-sponsored five such bills in eight years.

Meanwhile, legislators also have to decide how to interact with Gov. Pat McCrory after losing the appointments case to him. Will they continue to stiff-arm him? Or will they recognize their role is to pass laws, and the governor’s is to carry them out?

As an initial olive branch, they should quickly confirm the nine McCrory appointees they have held hostage for the better part of a year while the Supreme Court decided the fight between them and the governor.

Anything less suggests they care more about sending messages than effectively governing the state.