NC Congress map challenged again on partisan bias

Reps. Michael Speciale, left, and Pat McElraft, right, look over a redistricting map on the floor of the North Carolina House at the Legislative Building in Raleigh on Aug. 28, 2017. (Eamon Queeney / North State Journal)

RALEIGH — Buoyed by a favorable ruling this month involving legislative districts, a group of N.C. voters, bankrolled by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, sued again on Friday to overturn the state’s congressional map, alleging Republican state lawmakers manipulated lines to maximize GOP seats.

The registered Democrats and independents filed a lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court, alleging partisanship in how the 13 districts were drawn in 2016. They say the map violates the state constitution and want new districts for the 2020 elections. Republicans hold 10 of the seats in a state.

“There is no dispute that the 2016 congressional map reflects an extreme and intentional effort to maximize Republican advantage,” the lawsuit reads. “Legislative defendants proudly admitted it at the time.”

The lawsuit mimics successful arguments in partisan gerrymandering litigation in state court involving General Assembly districts. A three-judge panel ruled Sept. 3 that dozens of House and Senate districts had to be redrawn because their lines were designed to retain GOP majority control of the chambers.

A federal case on North Carolina’s congressional districts — alleging partisan gerrymandering that violated the U.S. Constitution — ended in June with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a 5-4 decision to stay out of such controversies. But the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, suggested states could intervene.

In the legislative district ruling — the first major partisan gerrymandering decision since — state judges declared violations of North Carolina Constitution provisions demanding equal treatment of and free expression for citizens and elections free from interference.

The lines, the judges ruled, made it nearly impossible for Democrats to win majorities because they were skewed toward Republicans. Last week, the legislature approved alternative lines, which are now being scrutinized by the judges.

Should the congressional district challenge be successful, Democrats could be in position to win more seats in 2020 and make it harder for Republicans nationally to win back the U.S. House. Getting new districts in place may be difficult, since candidate filing begins in December for a March primary. Courts and legislators previously have delayed elections when redistricting was required.

The strategy of using state courts to challenge partisan bias in congressional maps already has been successful elsewhere.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court last year struck down congressional districts based on a state constitution with wording similar to North Carolina’s, which says “all elections shall be free.” The Democratic-majority high court adopted new districts, under which Democrats gained four more seats in 2018 than they had won in 2016.

An arm of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by former Attorney General Eric Holder, is bankrolling Friday’s lawsuit, as it did the North Carolina legislative case.

The litigation marks at least the ninth lawsuit challenging North Carolina maps since 2011. Political opponents of Republicans have gone repeatedly to the courts this decade to attempt to rein in right-leaning legislation and efforts to weaken Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Federal courts ordered North Carolina’s congressional map be redrawn in 2016 because of unjustified racial bias. During the 2016 redraw, GOP Rep. David Lewis, a chief mapmaker named as one of defendants, said during debate that he was proposing a map designed to give Republicans a 10-3 seat advantage “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”

Lewis said later he was joking, but the plaintiffs on Friday pointed out such language as proof the map “may be the most extreme and brazen partisan gerrymander in American history.”

Thomas Hofeller, a longtime Republican consultant and mapmaker, helped draw the congressional plan for Lewis and others, as he did with the 2017 legislative districts struck down this month.

“Eric Holder’s sue ’til blue endgame is a Democratic legislative majority created by Democratic judges,” said Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Eden). “Anybody who doubts that Holder’s support for ‘fair maps’ is a phony front to help Democrats just needs to answer one question: How many blue states has Holder sued?”

North State Journal staff contributed to this report.