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State lawmakers pledge cooperation to redraw voting maps as court-ordered deadline looms

W Edward Callis III

Top state Senate leaders say lawmakers from both parties will work together on maps in the coming days.

The North Carolina Senate's top Republican and Democrat issued a joint statement Wednesday saying legislators from both parties will work together in the coming days on new redistricting plans.

The show of cooperation comes after the North Carolina Supreme Court struck down congressional and state legislative district maps on Friday. In a 4-3 decision, justices found the Republican-drawn maps could have secured GOP dominance for an entire decade. Lawmakers were given a two-week deadline to craft the new voting districts.

The court's majority said the maps were gerrymandered for extreme partisan gain — so skewed that the districts were designed to undermine fundamental voter rights enshrined in the state Constitution. The high court's four Democratic justices out-voted their three Republican colleagues in the decision.

The court's order requires lawmakers to submit remedial maps by 5 p.m. Friday, Feb. 18, for judicial review by a three-judge trial court panel that upheld the enacted GOP maps last month.

The lower court also found the maps to be gerrymandered for extreme partisan advantage but believed the issue of partisanship in redistricting to be a political question for the legislature to manage. The Supreme Court majority then reversed the lower court's decision on appeal.

Along with submitting remedial redistricting plans, the legislature must also provide information about what data they relied on, and what analytical methods they employed to ensure the resulting maps comply with constitutional requirements of fairness.

The trial court reviewing the maps will select a plan which, in the words of the Supreme Court's order, "comports with constitutional requirements." If the legislative maps fail to do so, the trial court may consider alternative maps submitted by other parties to the redistricting litigation, including maps submitted by the voting rights advocacy groups that sued to overturn the GOP maps.

State House district map being worked on by Rep. Destin Hall (R-Caldwell), in a redistricting committee room, on Oct. 14, 2021.
Rusty Jacobs
State House district map being worked on by Rep. Destin Hall (R-Caldwell), in a redistricting committee room, on Oct. 14, 2021.

In a joint statement, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue (D-Wake) said "over the next few days, Republican and Democratic legislators will work together in hopes of reaching a negotiated end product."

"Given the workload and complexity of the mathematical analyses required by the court, this work will likely continue into late next week," Sen. Berger and Sen. Blue added.

The lawmakers said they would share the resulting maps with the public and court "as early as practicable."

The cooperative tone of the joint statement stands in stark contrast to the vitriol that followed the Supreme Court's ruling last Friday.

Sen. Ralph Hise, a top Republican and Redistricting Committee co-Chairman, called the high court's ruling "perverse" and warned that "Democrats will come to regret it."

"Democratic judges, lawyers, and activists have worked in concert to transform the Supreme Court into a policymaking body to impose their political ideas," Hise said in a statement last week.

Judges in North Carolina run for office in partisan contests. One Democrat on the state Supreme Court, Sam Ervin IV, is running for re-election this year, and another, Robin Hudson, has decided not to run again.

Chief Justice Paul Newby, one of the court's three Republicans, was also scathing in his dissent, accusing his colleagues in the majority of tossing aside judicial restraint and "seizing the opportunity to advance its agenda."

Lawmakers must now continue their work to redraw maps on a tight schedule. By order of the Supreme Court, the trial court judges reviewing the maps must approve compliant plans by noon on Feb. 23 — candidate filing for the May 17, 2022 primaries is scheduled to start on Feb. 24.

The trial court reviewing the maps will appoint an expert known as a Special Master to help the judges assess the new plans' fairness.

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.