RALEIGH, N.C. (CN) — The North Carolina Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Wednesday over whether the state’s Republican-drawn electoral maps are constitutional.
In November, state lawmakers a passed new district maps that govern elections for Congress and the state legislature.
A group of voters brought a lawsuit against the General Assembly and board of elections, alleging that the three new maps are the outcome of extreme partisan gerrymandering. The case was consolidated with challenges brought by the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters and Common Cause.
“Our position is that when the General Assembly draws the maps with partisan intent to establish partisan advantage, and the effects of that partisan bias is in fact to advantage the majority party, then that violates provisions of the state constitution,” Stanton Jones, who represents a group of voters, said during Wednesday’s hearing before the state high court.
Jones, an attorney with Arnold and Porter Kaye Scholer LLP, asked the justices to reverse the lower court and declare the new maps invalid.
The groups claim the gerrymander violates the free elections, equal protection, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly clauses in the North Carolina Constitution.
“The 2021 plan flagrantly dilutes Democratic votes by trisecting each of the three most heavily Democratic counties in the state— Wake, Guilford, and Mecklenburg. It then packs many of the remaining Democratic strongholds into three congressional districts. The result is as intended: A map that produces 10 safe Republican seats, 3 safe Democratic seats, and 1 competitive district,” the lawsuit states.
A three-judge panel in Wake County Superior Court agreed that the maps are the result of “intentional, pro-Republican partisan redistricting," but they let them stand anyway. Superior Court Judges Graham Shirley, Nathaniel J. Poovey and Dawn M. Layton said in a Dec. 3 ruling that the North Carolina Constitution does not include an outright ban on gerrymandering.
“The lower court was correct in finding that even plaintiffs would have to concede that the General Assembly is allowed to draw districts for political advantage,” said Kate McKnight, who represented the legislative defendants in Wednesday’s hearing.
Zach Schauf, representing the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, said that “when you have maps that systematically prevent a party that wins a majority of votes from obtaining a majority of seats,” the elections no longer reflect the “will of the people.”
That’s where the constitutional violation lies, he said.
During a brief rebuttal, he added, “The party that wins more votes should have at least a fighting chance of winning most of the seats.”
McKnight argued that the plaintiffs failed to show the exact boundary separating legal and illegal gerrymandering.
“Plaintiffs' own experts concede that they never identified any sort of line between what is permissible and what isn't permissible,” McKnight argued.
Justice Anita Earls said that she garnered from briefs that the groups had actually presented “a couple of different bright line standards the court could adopt.”
Schauf’s organization as well as Common Cause claim that in addition to extreme partisan gerrymandering, the maps cause discriminatory racial vote dilution.
Allision Riggs, representing Common Cause, said the maps specifically target Black areas in eastern North Carolina, where the mapmakers removed heavily “Black Democratic areas” from certain districts and added “white conservative areas.”
The new maps also affected all of North Carolina’s metropolitan areas, which tend to be more diverse than rural areas.
Justice Samuel Ervin pointed out that the trial court found there was no intentional racial discriminatory intent.
“Is partisan intent a proxy for racially discriminatory intent?” he asked.
Riggs answered that partisan gerrymandering can be “an incentive to engage in racial discrimination because it is so widely known how Black voters vote.”
Attorney Phil Strach of Nelson Mullins, who represented the legislators alongside McKnight, denied the accusation of discriminatory mapmaking.
“There was no racial data used, so it's impossible to discriminate against a minority without racial data. The legislature didn't use political data either, they used neutral criteria,” Strach said.
But Ervin retorted that there were “numerous findings in the order that these neutral criteria were not, in fact, followed on a consistent basis.”
Strach said that the finding contains more nuance than the justice described.
“The simulation, which is computer evidence, is all the plaintiffs have,” Strach said, speaking about the voters’ expert witness testimonies that included simulations of possible district maps.
“It's all they have. There's no direct evidence of anything," he added. "They rely on the simulations. They are alluring on the surface but they are destined to cause this court more problems than they can solve."
Strach warned the court that a ruling against his clients might make members of the public think that the court is choosing political sides.
“Isn't it our obligation to read the state constitution and give effective provisions whatever the public may or may not think about that?” Justice Earls responded. “Why is that a valid consideration?”
The justices did not indicate when they will release an opinion, but the clock is ticking. North Carolina's primary election is currently scheduled for May 17.
Democratic Governor Roy Cooper had vetoed a push by lawmakers to postpone the primary. After having been delayed by the state’s high court in December, candidate filing for the election is set to begin in four weeks.
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