Public hearing in Greensboro on proposed NC legislative maps

NC maps line a table in a basement meeting room of GTCC where public hearing attendees were sent after the main meeting room filled up, Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017, in Jamestown, N.C.

GREENSBORO — A three-judge panel said Thursday it plans to appoint a “special master” to help untangle North Carolina’s legislative redistricting conundrum, a move that could bring sweeping changes to Guilford County’s state House and Senate voting districts.

In an order written by U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles of Greensboro, the panel named national voting rights expert Nathaniel Persily of Stanford University as its choice to “assist the court in further evaluating and, if necessary, redrawing subject voting districts by developing an appropriate plan.”

Eagles’ order singled out two North Carolina Senate and seven House districts — one in each chamber from Guilford — for raising continuing concerns among the judges that they “either fail to remedy the unconstitutional violation or are otherwise legally unacceptable.”

The maps at issue are those approved two months ago by the General Assembly in response to a previous court ruling that the original state House and Senate versions had been racially gerrymandered during 2011 to assure Republican Party control.

A second, court-ordered redrawing of the nine still suspect districts would include state Senate District 28 in Guilford, now represented by state Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-High Point) and the House District 57 seat currently held by state Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Greensboro).

Both local legislators said they were pleased but not surprised by the court’s ruling, and Harrison said that the impact on Guilford would be significant if the court follows through on the course it seems to be indicating.

“I think you’d have to redraw the whole map for Guilford County,” Harrison said. “Once you start redrawing districts, then you’re going to affect the adjacent districts.”

Robinson said she tried to warn her colleagues across the aisle this summer that the Senate map they were proposing, especially in Guilford, simply would not pass muster. She presented alternative plans for Guilford that included more balanced racial and partisan demographics, but got nowhere, she said in a telephone interview.

“That map clearly was about keeping as many Republicans there as possible and, if possible, adding more,” Robinson said of the latest map that the three-judge panel has been reviewing.

GOP legislative leaders in Raleigh, meanwhile, reacted harshly to Thursday’s decision calling it a “vague and unusual order (that) provides no legal or factual basis for objecting to the new maps.”

In a joint statement, state Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Spruce Pine) and Rep. David Lewis (R-Dunn) objected to the judges’ decision that gave the General Assembly “only two days to respond to such a strange order that could seize a fundamental right from the people of North Carolina and hand it to a single person on the other side of the country.”

The order potentially delegates “this legislature’s constitutional authority to draw districts to a lone professor in California with no accountability to North Carolinians,” said Lewis and Hise, respective chairmen of the House and Senate committees that shaped the new, remedial maps now under court scrutiny.

In addition to Eagles, the panel includes Judge James Wynn Jr. of the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder who, like Eagles, is based in the North Carolina Middle District headquartered in Greensboro.

Eagles was nominated to the bench in 2010 by then-President Barack Obama. Wynn has served at the appellate level since 2010, after he also was nominated by Obama. Schroeder, from Winston-Salem, was nominated by then President George W. Bush and has held his seat since 2008.

Reached by phone Thursday afternoon, Persily declined to comment on his pending appointment.

Persily would be paid “$500 per hour for his time, which the court understands is approximately half his usual hourly rate,” Eagles said in the order.

The judges “absolutely” could not have picked a better, more qualified person as their candidate for special master, said William Marshall, a Kenan Professor of Law at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“He’s one of the leading voting rights and election experts in the country,” said Marshall, adding that he has known Persily for more than a decade. “He brings a tremendous amount of knowledge and skill, and a stellar reputation for being scrupulous in his work.”

“He’ll go,” Marshall added, “wherever the evidence and the materials that he is reviewing takes him.”

A special master is essentially an administrator appointed by judges to oversee the carrying out of an order.

In addition to writing numerous scholarly articles on voting rights and other election issues, Persily has acted as a special master or court-approved expert in cases involving legislative and congressional election districts in New York, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland and his home state of California, according to his 15-page resume attached to Eagles’ order.

At Stanford, he has served as the James B. McClatchy Professor or Law since 2013, and earlier taught at the Columbia University School of Law in New York and the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia.

The trio of federal judges ruled last year, in a finding upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, that previous maps drawn by the Republican-led General Assembly were tainted by racial gerrymandering aimed at insuring GOP control.

The panel ordered the maps redrawn, which legislators did this summer after the high court reaffirmed the panel’s basic assessment that 28 districts statewide had been gerrymandered by packing too many Democrat-leaning black voters into that relatively small number of districts to make it easier for Republican candidates to prevail elsewhere.

The initial lawsuit was filed two years ago on behalf of 31 voters by the nonprofit activist group, Southern Coalition for Social Justice, and other plaintiff’s lawyers.

More recently, the voters’ attorneys objected to Robinson’s and Harrison’s revised districts and two others after the General Assembly presented the revamped 2017 plan, saying they were still out of whack racially.

For example, in her initial gerrymandered district, Harrison’s district included a 51 percent majority of black, voting-age residents. The margin increased to almost 61 percent in this year’s revised version.

In addition to that Guilford district, Robinson’s and two others elsewhere in the state that they said remain gerrymandered in the 2017 maps, lawyers for the aggrieved voters objected to a total of eight other newly revised districts that they said violated other aspects of voting law.

In her order, Eagles expressed continuing concerns about two of the three revised Senate districts that the plaintiffs had protested and seven of the nine House districts they challenged.

Eagles noted in the order that the judicial panel had given lawyers representing both the voter plaintiffs and the General Assembly defendants time to mutually agree on a special master, if one were needed.

But the two sides could not agree, Eagles said, so the court would act on its own.

Contact Taft Wireback at 336-373-7100 and follow @TaftWirebackNR on Twitter.

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