NC redistricting trial: Did partisan maps go too far?

North Carolina News

The trial to determine whether the North Carolina General Assembly’s redistricting maps were drawn to protect and extend Republican power ended Thursday in a lot of sniper fire that followed at least one major bombshell.

Lawyers for three plaintiffs – the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, the so-called Harper complainants and Common Cause – argued before a 3-judge panel in Wake Court Circuit Court that the districts for Congress and the General Assembly were created with “extreme partisan gerrymandering.”

An attorney representing the General Assembly suggested the maps were a transparent attempt to produce district lines devoid of political and racial influence.

Each attorney backed his or her respective experts, attacked their opponents’ and lobbed many loaded phrases into the records for the judges to consider for the ruling they are required by the state Supreme Court to enter by Tuesday.

You may recall that this 4-day trial was ordered by the justices last month when they suspended candidate filing for the elections and postponed the primary from March to May, specifying when the trial must be concluded and shortening the window for when the likely appeals to this verdict will be heard.

The maps at issue were adopted by the General Assembly on Nov. 5. They added a 14th Congressional District and split the current 13 in a way that experts suggest would ensure at least a 10-4 GOP dominance and created districts for that state legislature that some say suggest a possible return to Republican supermajority.

Guilford County – and the surrounding area – is a principle in each argument because of how the new Congressional map replaces the 6th Congressional District, which had been Guilford County and Winston-Salem, with three separate districts that cover hundreds of miles in all four directions.

None of this new. The arguments have raged for weeks (continuing those that have endured for years), but the trial produced one explosive revelation on Wednesday afternoon that at least arguably alters the entire picture of this process.

Explosive testimony

House Rules Chair Destin Hall (R-Lenoir), the leader of his chamber’s redistricting process, testified about strategy sessions for map drawing conducted in a private room and how maps devised there then were “created” during the streaming public sessions that lawmakers touted as “the most transparent in history.”

These “concept maps,” which Hall described as having been brought into the public room by his staff lawyer, Dylan Reel, are “currently lost and no longer exist.”

You might imagine that Hall’s words – which he said applied only to the maps drawn for the state House – became key components in the closing arguments.

Elizabeth Theodore, the attorney for the Harper complainants, who spoke first, talked about how some members of the legislature had invoked privilege – such as state Sen. Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus), one of the named defendants – and didn’t testify.

“These defendants got to pick who would testify based on who had the least damning evidence,” she said. “This [Hall] is who they picked.”

Hilary Klein, who represents Common Cause, said that “gamesmanship and semantics leave us all wondering who actually had the experience to draw these maps. Not Dylan Reel.”

She said there was an “inference of nefarious intent.”

Phil Strach, closing for the defendants, said it was “not surprising that plaintiffs would resort to relying on the irrelevant and so-called concept plans. Rep. Hall testified about that.

“Maps could’ve been drawn to benefit Republicans a lot more than they were.”

And in that statement lies the essence of this case: Did Republicans go too far along the legally unrestricted path of politically allowable gerrymandering?

As Strach put it: “Plaintiffs failed to answer the key question. What is the line between permissible and impermissible allowances for partisan gerrymandering?”

Expert attack

The plaintiffs trotted out expert after expert that produced countless maps that suggested that the lawmakers’ efforts were “carefully crafted to ensure republican majorities or supermajorities,” as Theodore said in opening her closing. The term “outlier” went mainstream.

These three attorneys arguing for the court to order a redraw described the tactics of “packing and cracking” districts with Democratic and minority voters, especially with the way Guilford, Wake and Mecklenburg counties – all Democratic strongholds – were broken up as opposed to the maps used in 2020.

“Over 500,000 people live in Guilford County,” Theodore said. “Most of them are Democrats. Because of these maps, they can’t elect a candidate [in Congress] that represents them over the next decade.”

Zach Shaw, the attorney for NCLCV, said the “harm is both profound and avoidable.”

Each side used the other’s experts as underscoring its arguments. Theodore, Shaw and Klein all said that analysis by the key defense expert, Brigham Young University political science professor Michael Barber, “revealed [the adopted maps to be] extreme outliers,” as Shaw said.

Strach argued that the plaintiffs’ “veritable Justice League of experts” were guilty of drawing maps for Democratic advantage – generally doing what they had accused the legislators of doing, in reverse – and that the variances between some of those maps and the one adopted were so minimal as to be irrelevant.

He also likened the plaintiffs’ experts to the Wizard of Oz, that they appeared all-knowing, but when you pull back the curtain, there was a man behind the computer, as it were.

Math vs. politics

He called race a “red herring” and suggested that “representation is in line with minority population.” He said there is a “big gap in solving math problem and understanding political issues.

“Even if you believe the rigged mathematical analysis, no evidence the maps favor Republicans.”

Said Theodore: “There is no plausible deniability that this congressional plan is an extreme gerrymander.”

But Strach, getting the last word, summed up the arguments like this:

“Plaintiffs want a computer [to draw maps], replacing the legislature with math professors.

“That’s not democracy. That’s a threat to democracy.”

“Dismiss these claims.”

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