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Gerrymandering on Trial

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We’re one step closer to determining whether North Carolina voters will have the chance to decide our future in competitive elections based on fair legislative maps. Environmental advocates believe if voters get to choose their representatives — instead of politicians picking their voters — they will choose leaders who will stand up for clean air, clean water, clean energy, and public health instead of choosing polluters’ puppets.

On Friday, the two-week state trial concluded in the case of Common Cause v. Lewis, in which plaintiffs contend that extreme partisan gerrymandering violates the North Carolina state constitution. The plaintiffs in this case are asking that the court draw new district maps for the General Assembly, to take effect for the 2020 legislative elections.

That timeline is important because the federal Constitution charges the legislature elected next November with drawing new district maps based on the population counts in the 2020 U.S. Census. Those new maps will form the basis of North Carolina’s legislative representation for the next decade. Fair maps in 2020 make it more likely those elected then will create fairer maps for the following decade, possibly using an independent commission rather than the partisan process that has created all the problems of unfair representation and bad outcomes in previous decades.

The timing of the court’s decision is also of the essence because candidate filing for the 2020 elections is set to begin in early December. And this case must still wind its way through the appeals process to the state Supreme Court, after which the maps still have to be redrawn and approved by the court if they rule in plaintiffs’ favor. Final briefs are due from the parties in the case by August 7th, and the three-judge panel should rule in the weeks following that.

In the trial’s most dramatic development, on its penultimate day, judges threw out the entire testimony of the defendants’ most important expert witness, who admitted under cross-examination that his analysis was based on an intentionally misleading analysis of the degree of partisan bias in the 2017 maps in question. Observing analysts concluded that this admission’s effect is devastating to the defense’s arguments in this and potentially other cases.

This false testimony came after defendants already lied to a federal court in a previous racial gerrymandering case. Legislators had told the court that there was not sufficient time for a special election in 2017 under new maps because their consultant, Thomas Hofeller, could not draw maps in enough time to hold a proper election. But it turns out, after Hofeller’s passing brought his computer files to the public record, that he had already largely drawn those maps before legislators told the court that and before they passed the criteria for those maps to follow. This was a central point from plaintiffs in the Common Cause case as well.

The losing side at this level is expected to then appeal to the state Supreme Court. Barring an unusual decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the appeal of a case argued entirely on the basis of state constitutional provisions, the decision by the state Supreme Court is expected to be the final one. 

Environmental advocates and other citizen good-government groups eagerly await the trial panel’s decision.

Up next, Rate Hike Bill Still Stalled >>

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