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North Carolina's high court could set new limits on partisanship in redistricting

Jess Clark

Oral arguments in this redistricting case are set for this Wednesday.

The North Carolina Supreme Court soon will decide whether extreme partisanship in redistricting violates voting rights protections under the state constitution.

A trial court panel recently ruled GOP lawmakers drew maps with extreme partisan intent, agreeing with expert testimony that the drawing of the districts give Republicans a heavy advantage in an otherwise politically balanced state.

But the panel also found redistricting was a non-justiciable political question out of the judicial branch's reach and upheld the maps.

Voting rights advocates who sued to overturn the maps appealed.

"If unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering is not checked and balanced by judicial oversight, legislators elected under one partisan gerrymander will enact new gerrymanders after each decennial census, entrenching themselves in power anew decade after decade," attorneys for the plaintiffs argued in their appeal brief, citing a 2019 Wake County Superior Court panel that overturned earlier GOP drawn maps. At the time, GOP lawmakers opted not to appeal that ruling, so it applied to maps for the 2020 elections only.

The plaintiffs' brief in the most recent redistricting case went on to argue: "For this reason, the trial courts' allusions to voters’ hypothetical ability to overcome the partisan gerrymanders in this matter — which the trial court also found to be extreme outliers and durable to changing electoral will — is not a rational or reliable safety valve for the risk to democracy presented here."

But lawyers for the Republican legislative defendants argue it is Democrats and their backers who want to tip the scales for unconstitutional partisan advantage.

They noted in their brief that the state constitution gives sole authority over redistricting to the legislature and sets clear limits on the process, such as requirements to create districts of equal population and to keep counties whole. But, they continued, the constitution says nothing about limits on partisanship in the redistricting process.

"Because nothing in the constitution restricts the General Assembly’s political discretion in redistricting, there is no constitutional basis for this court to infer such restrictions," the defendants' brief argued.

To bolster their argument that redistricting is a political question left to the people and their elected representatives, the defense lawyers argued in their brief that "unlike the executive or the judiciary, the members of the General Assembly, are more accountable to the people through elections every two years."

Oral arguments in the case are set for this Wednesday.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

Rusty Jacobs is a politics reporter for WUNC. Rusty previously worked at WUNC as a reporter and substitute host from 2001 until 2007 and now returns after a nine-year absence during which he went to law school at Carolina and then worked as an Assistant District Attorney in Wake County.