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Posted by on Jun 30, 2015

Supreme Court decision may clear way for partisan support for NC redistricting commission

Richard Craver/Winston-Salem Journal
North Carolina – at least for now – is not likely to feel a ripple effect from Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding Arizona’s right to have an independent commission handle congressional redistricting.
The court ruling affected 13 states – none in the Southeast – that use commissions as part of their congressional redistricting process every 10 years. The goal of the commissions is limiting partisan influence.

By comparison, North Carolina redistricting is handled by the General Assembly, which has received criticism for being partisan in developing map lines, depending on which party controls the legislature.

“The court opted not to place a barrier in the way of independent congressional-redistricting commissions that are in effect or might be contemplated by other states, such as North Carolina,” said John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University.

Three House and one Senate bills have been introduced during the current legislative session, none of which have been acted upon.

“The Supreme Court ruling clarifies that the redistricting commission bills filed in the General Assembly this year are constitutional,” said Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, and a co-sponsor of House Bill 92. “That ruling removes one of the objections.”

Shelly Carver, a spokeswoman for Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and president pro tem, had a one-word answer – “No” – when asked if the U.S. Supreme Court decision directly affects N.C.’s redistricting process.

A more pivotal legal case affecting North Carolina redistricting is set for Aug. 31. That’s when the N.C. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments addressing challenges to the 2011 redistricting maps that also set legislative districts.

In April, the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to N.C. Supreme Court with instructions to reconsider a December decision that upheld the maps. The case is Dickson vs. Rucho.

Margaret Dickson, a former state legislator, is serving as plaintiff. Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, is the primary defendant for the legislature. Dickson’s lawsuit, backed by the state NAACP chapter, says the aim of the current redistricting maps is to dilute the black vote in violation of the U.S. and state constitutions.

“The result has been a lack of competition in our state’s congressional and legislative elections, depriving North Carolina voters of having a real voice in choosing their representatives,” left-leaning advocacy group Common Cause N.C. said.

Dinan said the biggest difference between the Arizona redistricting case and North Carolina is North Carolina doesn’t have a provision for the citizen initiative process.

“There was a very small chance — or at least speculation — that if the court did find fault with the Arizona redistricting commission that the court could have gone so far as to invalidate any independent congressional-redistricting commissions, whether they were established through the initiative process or by some other process,” Dinan said.

“The argument would have been that the Constitution says congressional redistricting must be done by state legislatures, and no other body can perform this role.

“Such a sweeping ruling would have had major implications for any state contemplating establishing an independent commission to handle congressional redistricting,” Dinan said.

Bi-partisan support is there
House Bill 92 has three Republican and one Democratic primary co-sponsors and 59 co-sponsors, including Reps. Ed Hanes and Evelyn Terry of Forsyth.

That bill would give redistricting authority to a nonpartisan legislative staff panel with both parties having representation.

It would require legislative districts to be within 5 percent of the “ideal population,” and also be comprised of districts that meet at more than just adjoining corners.

Ideal population is defined as keeping districts, whether congressional or legislative, roughly equal in terms of population “as nearly as is practicable,” according to Joseph Levitt, a law professor at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, congressional districts would be required to be within 0.1 percent of the ideal population.

Despite having more than half of the House as sponsors, the Nonpartisan Redistricting Commission bill has not been acted on since sent to the House Elections committee Feb. 18.

“Bipartisan support exists in the N.C. House to establish a commission,” Insko said.

“What would help move the bills forward is increasing public support. The gerrymandered districts will not support some sitting Republicans in the NC Senate due to population shifts.”

Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause N.C., said he is hopeful the U.S. Supreme Court ruling will build momentum “to take partisan politics out of the redistricting process.”

“We urge the General Assembly to pass House Bill 92 and establish a fair system for drawing our state’s voting maps.”

Gov. Pat McCrory, as well as former governors Jim Hunt and Jim Martin, has expressed support for redistricting reform. Also on board for reform are the right-leaning John Locke Foundation and the left-leaning N.C. Justice Center.

“The outcome of this case could have a long-term impact on efforts to change North Carolina’s redistricting process to one involving an independent commission or legislative staffers,” said Mitch Kokai, a policy analyst for the Locke Foundation