Politics & Government

Judges order transparency for new NC maps, citing ‘highly improbable’ GOP assurances

A two-week timer has started ticking for Republicans at the North Carolina General Assembly to draw new maps for state House and Senate districts.

As they do so, they will be following stricter rules than in the past — including rules to take political considerations out of any new maps, force more transparency into the process and require any outside experts to be approved in advance by judges.

Three Superior Court judges overturned the state’s current political maps as unconstitutional on Tuesday. They had been drawn in 2017 to replace different maps the Republican-led legislature also drew, in 2011, after those had also been ruled unconstitutional. The ruling doesn’t affect the maps for North Carolina’s 13 U.S. House seats, which survived a separate legal challenge earlier this summer at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The legislature is on a break this week, but on Wednesday its two redistricting committees announced they would meet at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday. The new maps are supposed to be done quickly, by Sept. 18. During the coming weeks, lawmakers will be facing scrutiny from the judges who mandated a less political, more transparent process than normal.

Republican lawmakers may not have operated in good faith during the 2017 map-making process, the judges wrote, which is why they’re requiring stricter procedures this time.

The judges did not outright accuse lawmakers of lying. But they listed statements Republican leaders made in court, and to the general public — about who really drew the maps, and when — then called those claims “highly improbable.”

However, despite the judges writing they were “troubled” by their claims, top redistricting officials aren’t backing down.

Rep. David Lewis, the chairman of the House Redistricting Committee who was the lead defendant in this case, said in an email to The News & Observer on Wednesday that the judges are wrong. Specifically, the claims in question revolve around whether the late GOP mapmaking expert Thomas Hofeller secretly drew the state’s maps outside of the public eye in 2017, and whether Lewis and others knew Hofeller wasn’t following the legislature’s rules for the process but voted for his maps anyway.

“It is a complete fabrication that I made any misrepresentation to the court,” Lewis said. “The legislative maps I presented in 2017 were drawn on a state computer using criteria adopted publicly by the redistricting committee. I had no input on or control of any play maps Dr. (Hofeller) may have drawn on his personal computer on his own time.”

Republican lawmakers could appeal Tuesday’s ruling, but they’ve indicated they don’t plan to.

“It’s time to move on,” Republican Senate leader Phil Berger said Tuesday.

National attention

It doesn’t appear that President Donald Trump, a Republican, has chimed in on the ruling yet. But his predecessor, Democrat Barack Obama, tweeted about the case on Wednesday.

“Yesterday’s ruling is a big win for North Carolina — and for all of us,” Obama said. “Voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around. This win is proof that change is always within our reach, on gerrymandering, voting rights, and much more.”

Obama’s former attorney general, Eric Holder, has also waded into the situation. On Tuesday, in the same press release in which Berger said he wanted to “finally put this divisive battle behind us,” Berger also criticized Holder. Holder now runs a nonprofit, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which has helped fund anti-gerrymandering lawsuits in states including North Carolina.

“This case is the next step in Eric Holder’s drive to use judges to create a Democratic majority,” Berger wrote. “Thwarted at the U.S. Supreme Court, Holder has turned to state courts with Democratic majorities to, in his own words, ‘favorably position Democrats’ to game the redistricting process.”

Holder and Berger then got into a war of words on Twitter.

“Senator Berger - Why are Republicans afraid of fair maps?” Holder tweeted. “Why do they complain every time an independent court rules against them? This ruling is an important victory for fairness. Stop distracting from the fact that you manipulated North Carolina maps to wrongly gain/hold power.”

Berger shot back by challenging Holder to prove that his redistricting group has helped with any lawsuits against Democrat-drawn gerrymandering, or if they’ve only gone after Republican-drawn maps.

“Stop pretending this is about anything other than partisan gain,” Berger said. “How many blue states have you sued?”

Hofeller files in the spotlight

Several key pieces of evidence at the trial over the maps this summer came from Hofeller’s formerly secret files, which Hofeller’s estranged daughter turned over to the challengers in this and other lawsuits after he died last year.

Republicans tried to keep that evidence out of the trial but were unsuccessful.

When the legislature was drawing the current maps, struck down Tuesday, back in 2017, lawmakers asked for public comment and passed numerous criteria they said they would use to draw the maps. But Hofeller’s files showed that he was nearly finished drawing the maps well before that public process, according to the court ruling.

The judges found that the legislature passed its official map-making rules on Aug. 11, 2017, but that by June 28 Hofeller had already assigned nearly 90% of North Carolina’s population to districts. He couldn’t have followed the rules when drawing the maps since the rules didn’t exist yet.

Republican lawmakers said repeatedly that they had no idea Hofeller had done so much work beforehand. They also claimed that — even though the court would determine that his draft maps closely resemble the maps that the legislature eventually passed into law — anything found in Hofeller’s personal files was merely a hobby, and not his official work for the legislature.

The judges didn’t buy it.

“The Court finds this argument unpersuasive,” the ruling said. “Dr. Hofeller was retained by the General Assembly on June 27, 2017, for the purposes of drawing the 2017 House and Senate maps. The Court finds it highly improbable that in the days leading up to his engagement, or in the nearly six weeks following, Dr. Hofeller never mentioned his draft maps to anyone connected with Legislative Defendants until after he received the Adopted Criteria on August 11, 2017 — especially since, merely eight or nine days later, Legislative Defendants were able to reveal final drafts of his House and Senate maps.”

Lewis, however, still maintains that the Hofeller files shouldn’t be considered official legislative work, nor should they have been shown at trial, since Hofeller isn’t alive to explain what’s in them.

“I think it’s important to note that dead men can’t defend themselves,” Lewis said.

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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.