Judges: No delay for new N. Carolina congressional map

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The judges who struck down North Carolina’s congressional map for excessive partisanship that favored Republicans refused Tuesday to delay their order telling GOP state lawmakers to draw new lines by next week.

The denial by the three-judge federal panel was expected, given that the judges wrote 200-plus pages last week explaining why the boundaries approved two years ago were marked by “invidious partisanship” and are illegal political gerrymanders, violating several parts of the U.S. Constitution.

Barring a delay by the U.S. Supreme Court — which Republican legislators also have sought and their request is pending — the legislature will be required to redraw its map for North Carolina’s 13 congressional districts by Jan. 24.

Attorneys for the lawmakers cited partisan gerrymandering cases already before the Supreme Court from Wisconsin and Maryland for necessitating the order’s delay, because the justices may rule differently on whether partisan gerrymandering can be adjudicated.

But the lower court’s judges — U.S. Circuit Judge Jim Wynn and District Judges William Osteen and Earl Britt — said the cases in the other states are different enough legally that their decision could stand no matter how the justices rule. For example, the Wisconsin matter involves legislative districts.

“Any decision the Supreme Court renders in those cases is highly unlikely to undermine all of the factual and legal bases upon which this court found the 2016 plan violated the Constitution and enjoined further use of that plan,” the judges wrote.

When a previous court found the state’s 2011 congressional map relied too heavily on race in drawing two districts, North Carolina Republican lawmakers approved new lines based on redistricting criteria designed to retain the party’s 10-3 majority in the state delegation.

Requiring yet another map to be drawn so close to the start of candidate filing next month would confuse voters and make it difficult for potential candidates, according to lawyers for the Republicans.

But the judges wrote the May primary and November general elections are still months away and they have the power to delay candidate filing if necessary to ensure a lawful map is in place. The judges plan to hire a special expert to draw an alternative map in case lawmakers refuse to draw one or approve unacceptable boundaries.

If their order was delayed until the Supreme Court ruled this summer in another partisan gerrymandering case that still led to North Carolina’s map being struck down, the judges said, it could be too late to draw a new plan in time for the fall election.

“As a result, North Carolinians would cast votes in congressional elections conducted under unconstitutional maps in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018 — virtually the entire decade,” the judges wrote Tuesday.

The denial came while the North Carolina legislature awaits a decision by another federal judicial panel — comprised of Wynn and two other judges — whether to accept a special master’s plan to redraw roughly two dozen state House and Senate districts. This judicial panel appointed the expert after it raised constitutional concerns about a legislative redistricting the General Assembly approved last summer.