Plaintiffs ask court to speed up new NC voting maps
Plaintiffs who successfully challenged the legality of North Carolina’s legislative districts are asking federal judges to require lawmakers to draw new maps by Aug. 11 and to hold new elections in March, before the next regularly scheduled session of the General Assembly.
Meanwhile, the plaintiffs say, state lawmakers lost their authority to pass bills or override vetoes after June 30, when the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that the state’s voting districts are unconstitutional went into effect.
Those arguments are part of the latest filing in the Covington v. North Carolina case, scheduled for a hearing Thursday in a federal courtroom in Greensboro. The three-judge panel that declared the maps unconstitutional last year and ordered lawmakers to draw new ones will now hear arguments about how quickly the process should happen.
Attorneys representing the state and legislative leaders have proposed a Nov. 15 deadline to pass new state House and Senate districts and submit them to the court for review. They argue that the process is required to include public hearings and feedback.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys Edwin Speas and Anita Earls with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice submitted a timeline Friday they say would provide adequate time for a primary election on Dec. 5 and general elections for legislative seats on March 6, 2018, reseating lawmakers before they reconvene for the 2018 short session. They say legislators are dragging their feet to try to avoid a special election.
“I think they’re asking for something that’s going to be politically difficult for the courts to meet,” said David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College, noting the plaintiffs’ request would entail the state conducting five elections – two primaries and three general elections – in a 12-month period.
“As a political statement, it makes perfect sense,” McLennan said of the plaintiff’s motion. “I just think, in terms of both how the justices will interpret the law and then just sort of the speed at which we’d have to have a primary, a general election and then another primary and general election, it would almost be untenable.”
Opponents of Republican legislative leaders have been arguing for months that a legislature elected in part under unconstitutional districts is itself unconstitutional. Earlier this year, state NAACP President Rev. William Barber called on lawmakers to “cease and desist” conducting legislative business until the districts are redrawn and new elections are held.
Legislative leaders countered that past legislatures have continued their work despite such rulings, although precedent is mixed.
In April 2002, when the state Supreme Court threw out maps drawn by Democratic leaders, lawmakers held a special session to redraw districts before beginning their short session in May. However, in July 2003, when the court threw out those 2002 maps, the legislature continued its session, not redrawing the maps till November.
In Friday’s filings, however, Speas and Earls argue that the circumstances of this case are different because of “the scope of the constitutional violation.” More than half of the House and the Senate districts will have to be redrawn, they argue, so a majority of the body is not constitutionally elected.
The legislature has the legal right to the first attempt to fix its own maps, the motion says, and the federal court can grant it the power to do so. But any other action, they suggest, would be legally dubious.
An exhibit filed with the motion offers an example of how that could play out.
The Southern Environmental Law Center’s state director Derb Carter submitted a letter he sent last week to Gov. Roy Cooper, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, advising the legislators not to try to override Cooper’s veto of a bill allowing landfills to spray waste liquid into the air.
That bill is one of a half-dozen that lawmakers are expected to reconsider in their veto override session Aug. 3.
Carter argues, as Speas and Earls did in their motion, that the issuance of the Supreme Court’s mandate to the state on June 30 removes the body’s authority to legislate or override a veto.
“If the usurper legislature does attempt to override the veto,” Carter wrote in the letter dated Friday, “it opens itself up to litigation wherein the North Carolina State Courts may be asked to issue a declaratory judgment that the law is facially unconstitutional and void ab initio.”
WRAL News asked legislative leaders for their response to this argument.
Answering on behalf of Senate Redistricting Chairman Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, spokeswoman Shelly Carver replied, “We will respond to the plaintiffs in court at the hearing on Thursday.”
“In general, the legal principle of good faith is applied,” McLennan said. “If you’re elected with the maps, then you were elected in good faith, and therefore, you legislate in good faith. To void any kind of action, even though the courts have said the maps themselves are unconstitutional, nowhere in the country have I ever seen that happen.”