RALEIGH, NC (CN) – Following a lengthy trial to determine if Republicans illegally gerrymandered state political districts in their party’s favor, a Raleigh court decided Tuesday that North Carolina’s voting maps were unconstitutionally drawn.
A three-judge panel struck down North Carolina’s congressional maps on Tuesday, ruling the state’s House and Senate voting district maps are unconstitutional and must be redrawn before the 2020 elections.
After the U.S. Supreme Court declined in June to take up the state’s political case, a decision on whether or not North Carolina crossed a legal line when the Republican-led General Assembly politically gerrymandered voting districts in 2017 was left in the hands of three Superior Court judges in July.
Judge Paul C. Ridgeway of Wake County, Judge Alma Hinton of Halifax County and Judge Joseph Crosswhite of Iredell County met in Raleigh for two weeks last month to hear the testimony of legislators, witnesses and elections advocates.
The North Carolina Democratic Party, an elections advocacy group called Common Cause and more than 30 other individual voters brought the partisan gerrymandering-related case against North Carolina lawmakers.
Plaintiffs in the case alleged that 95 of the 170 state House and Senate districts drawn two years ago violate the North Carolina Constitution’s free speech and association protections.
“The People of North Carolina have delegated, through the State’s Constitution, the drawing of the State’s legislative districts to the General Assembly,” the panel said in a 357-page joint opinion published Tuesday. “The delegation of this task, however, is not so unconstrained that legislative discretion is unfettered. Rather, the power entrusted by the People to the General Assembly to draw districts is constrained by other constitutional provisions that the People have also ordained.”
“Some of these constitutional constraints are explicit—for example, the Whole County Provision of the Constitution limits a mapmaker’s discretion to traverse county boundaries,” the panel added. “But other constitutional constraints that limit the legislative process of map drawing are not explicit or limited in applicability only to map drawing – some constraints apply to all acts of the General Assembly, and indeed all acts of government.”
When asked by the panel in July why he decided to testify last month, Christopher Cooper, an expert witness for plaintiffs, said that it would help him address a concerning puzzle to him personally.
“It seems like our General Assembly is out of step in a lot of ways from other elected offices in North Carolina,” Cooper said.
North Carolina lawmakers disagreed during the trial, presenting their own witnesses who said those who brought the case fabricated mathematical evidence.
Throughout the trial, the lawmakers’ witnesses claimed that the opposing party fabricated such evidence.
The judges Tuesday said that the North Carolina State Constitution obligates the state’s government to “provide all people with equal protection under the law,” and stipulates “that our government not restrict all peoples’ rights of association and political expression, and that our government allow for free elections.”
All future map-drawing will have to occur at public hearings, with any relevant computer screens visible to legislators and public observers, according to Tuesday’s ruling. No one may undertake any steps to draw or revise the new North Carolina congressional districts outside of public view, the judges said.
Stanton Jones, counsel for the groups who brought the case challenging district maps adopted by state lawmakers in 2017, said on Monday there is no possible way for Democrats to achieve a majority in state elections due to the heavily gerrymandered voting districts that were drawn by Thomas Hofeller.
Hofeller, whose estranged daughter turned over his district mapping files to Common Cause, died last year.
He drew the maps, which were adopted by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2017, after the state was ordered to replace the racially gerrymandered 2011 maps that Hofeller also created.