Bob Hall: Judging congressional, General Assembly districts fairly
Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 1, 2022
By Bob Hall
Please don’t be surprised in the coming weeks when the state Supreme Court votes to throw out the Republican-drawn election maps for North Carolina’s congressional and General Assembly districts. It will likely be a 4-3 vote, with critics blasting the Democratic majority on the court for being biased.
But here’s the truth: A bipartisan panel of judges, with a Republican majority, has already unanimously ruled that Republican legislators intentionally drew the district maps to undermine the power of Democratic voters.
The judges said the legislators’ plan is an “extreme outlier” that “subordinates the Adopted Criteria and traditional redistricting criteria for partisan advantage.”
Translation: Instead of following their own rules, legislators chose an extreme set of maps that divided (“cracked and packed”) you and your neighbors into districts to guarantee that more Republicans will win. Voters get valued differently. Black voters, who mostly register as Democrats, will be especially harmed.
Despite expressing their “disdain,” the judges didn’t take the big step of ruling the maps unconstitutional. The high court will soon take that step.
Given the evidence of “systematic” and “extreme” gerrymandering, I expect the Supreme Court will rule the maps violate our state constitution’s protection against measures that subvert free elections, treat voters unequally, and entrench one party in power.
To prevent my prediction from coming true, Republican legislators recently filed a motion calling for Democratic Justice Anita Earls to remove (“recuse”) herself from the case. They claim she has “an insurmountable conflict” because her election was heavily financed by a national political committee with a partisan interest in redistricting.
Ironically, Republican Justice Paul Newby faced – and rejected – a nearly identical charge in a previous redistricting case. A motion filed by Democrats and others called for his recusal because his election was heavily financed by a national political committee with a partisan interest in the case. Rather than step aside, Newby wrote a decision upholding the challenged maps.
Republican Justice Phil Berger Jr. also refused to recuse himself recently in a dispute, like this one, where a chief defendant is his father, state Senate leader Phil Berger Sr. Phil Jr. dismissed the obvious conflict of a son judging a case involving his daddy. That’s strange enough, but there’s a major campaign financing conflict for Justice Berger, too.
Phil Berger Sr. is often a featured guest at his son’s campaign fundraisers. In fact, the vast majority of money Phil Jr. has raised for his judicial elections has come from the Republican Party and donors tied to political appointees and lobbyists who seek favorable treatment from Phil Sr., the Senate boss and most powerful Republican in North Carolina.
In response to a complaint I filed with the board of elections, Phil Jr. had to amend his campaign reports to reveal fundraising events paid for by political appointees and a fundraiser with Phil Sr. at a lobbyist’s home. How can the son impartially rule in a redistricting case involving the political fate of his major benefactor?
It seems hypocritical for Sen. Berger Sr. and others to tell Justice Anita Earls to recuse herself when Justices Newby and Berger Jr. have not. As a distinguished Black woman attorney with extensive expertise in racial and partisan gerrymandering, Justice Earls will likely play a key role in how the court rules in this case. That’s the real reason GOP legislators want her removed.
Partisan strife will continue, but please remember that Republican and Democratic judges agree that the district maps are extreme and unfair. They diminish your vote and disrespect your voice. Our state constitution’s protection of equal rights and fair elections means they must be declared illegal.
Bob Hall is the retired executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies and Democracy North Carolina.