Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017

New North Carolina district maps get hearing from judges

By By GARY D. ROBERTSON

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's redrawn legislative districts were debated Thursday before a panel of three federal judges who had struck down previous district maps for racial bias.

The judges must decide whether to force another redrawing of the boundaries approved by Republicans over the summer or allow them to be used in the 2018 elections.

Lawyers representing GOP legislative leaders and dozens of voters who successfully sued to throw out previous districts were subjected to 3½ hours of questioning by the judges, who did not immediately rule. Later Thursday, the judges opened wider the door to choosing an outside expert to make map changes on their behalf. Candidate filing starts in February.

The judges had ordered the GOP-dominated legislature to approve new maps by Sept. 1, in keeping with their decision last year that 28 House and Senate districts drawn in 2011 were unlawful racial gerrymanders. Nearly all of the districts challenged by North Carolina voters in a lawsuit had majority-black voting age populations. Critics of the 2011 maps contend black voters were packed in certain districts so that surrounding districts would be more white and Republican. Republicans counter that they believed they could avoid voting rights litigation by creating majority-black districts whenever possible.

The previous maps were first used in the 2012 elections. They helped the GOP expand and retain veto-proof majorities in the two chambers, which in turn implemented a conservative agenda. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's 2016 election has done little so far to stop it.

The voters' attorneys still found fault with 12 House and Senate districts in the new maps and want them redrawn again. Four districts still have problems with racial bias, they argue, while eight others violate the North Carolina Constitution's prohibition against mid-decade redistricting and a rule designed to minimize district boundaries crossing county lines.

"They have exceeded the authority that this court has ordered for a remedy," said Anita Earls, a lawyer representing the voters who sued.

Thursday's questioning focused largely on the Republicans' decision to ignore racial data about the state's population during the latest round of redistricting. During legislative debate, Republicans said leaving out racial considerations would fix the problems that the judges previously found.

"Basically, the map drawer started with a clean slate," Phil Strach, a private attorney representing the GOP leaders, told the judges. Strach said all of the districts now "clearly comply with the court's judgment, and the legislature did exactly what it was told to do."

But some judges were skeptical that race could have been left out of the equation for the new maps, which Earls said looked similar to the 2011 maps. The new maps were drawn with the help of Tom Hofeller, the map expert who helped the GOP during the 2011 redistricting.

"There is certainly evidence that he knew (racial data) in the first instance," U.S. Circuit Judge Jim Wynn asked Strach. "In drawing, the second map, you're saying he didn't know this?"

Strach said there's been no evidence presented that Hofeller had access to the racial data for this most recent job. Strach also asserted that the new House and Senate boundaries are markedly different from the 2011 maps and were drawn based on common redistricting criteria — protecting incumbents among them.

U.S. District Judges Catherine Eagles and Thomas Schroeder questioned Earls and an allied lawyer about how much the legislature should have considered race in drawing the new maps. Eagles pressed for specifics when Earls said racial data should be considered to ensure the districts are fair.

"Why is it not good enough that they just started over, and did not consider race?" Eagles asked. Earls responded that the legislature's new maps can't be presumed to be constitutional, given that lawmakers already failed once drawing lawful maps.

The plaintiffs represented by Earls want the judges to replace the districts they still find unlawful with alternatives they offered to legislators, or to send the job to a third-party expert known as a special master. Republicans wants the court to sign off on their maps and object to the alternative maps they say favor Democrats.

In a written order late Thursday, the panel asked lawyers to offer by next week names of at least three possible special masters to avoid delays should the panel favor the voters.

2017-10-12 22:43:06 GMT

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