RALEIGH — Voters who successfully sued to throw out 28 North Carolina legislative districts urged the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday to preserve a lower court demand that boundaries be redrawn very soon so there can be special elections this fall.
State GOP legislative leaders asked the Supreme Court last month for a delay seeking to block the order of a three-judge panel that the remapping be completed by March 15. On Monday, the voters’ attorneys filed a response with Chief Justice John Roberts.
Without special elections, the next round of General Assembly elections would be held in late 2018. Control of the state legislature is at stake: The GOP currently holds majorities large enough to override any vetoes by Democrat Roy Cooper, who took office as governor this month. Special elections could cut the two-year terms of several dozen legislators in half, forcing them to run again just months from now.
Millions of people living in the gerrymandered districts since they were first drawn in 2011 should not have to wait nearly two years to be represented by people in constitutional boundaries, Anita Earls, the chief attorney for the voters, wrote to Roberts.
One of the affected House Districts, No. 48, includes parts of Robeson County and is represented by Garland Pierce, a Democrat.
The three-judge appellate panel last August decided that the Senate and House districts were illegal racial gerrymanders. Those who sued said they were drawn intentionally to create more predominantly white and Republican districts by effectively stuffing black voters into adjacent Democratic districts.
Lawyers for the state asked the court to rule on a delay by this Wednesday, when the legislature reconvenes, saying lawmakers shouldn’t have to spend the first weeks of the session redrawing boundaries they believe ultimately will be upheld.
Roberts, who considers emergency appeals for North Carolina, isn’t obligated to rule by Wednesday, however, and can refer the matter to the entire current eight-member court.
The state’s attorneys also said a delay is justified because the Supreme Court already heard oral arguments in lawsuits involving congressional districts in North Carolina and state legislative districts in Virginia, and its decisions in those cases are pending. The justices’ eventual ruling could provide guidance about the use of race in North Carolina’s maps, the attorneys said.
But Earls wrote Monday that it’s unlikely the August ruling would be vacated, because GOP lawmakers disregarded traditional redistricting criteria “for race-based imperatives” as they created a “crazy quilt of bizarrely shaped districts.”
State attorneys also pointed out that the North Carolina Supreme Court twice upheld the maps after similar racial challenges, but Earls wrote that federal courts aren’t boxed in by state decisions on matters of federal constitutional rights.
Cooper was the attorney general for 16 years before narrowly defeating Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in November. A lawyer in Cooper’s office has helped defend the maps on behalf of the state.
When asked whether Democrat Josh Stein, the new attorney general, would continue the defense, spokeswoman Laura Brewer wrote in an email that Stein hasn’t made any decisions on his office’s position on this situation or other matters he’s reviewing.