A panel of trial judges made additional changes to North Carolina's congressional district map Wednesday, declaring that the latest U.S. House redistricting performed by the General Assembly fails to meet standards of partisan fairness set recently by the state Supreme Court.
The three trial judges accepted the recommendations of special masters they appointed to assist them with scrutinizing legislative and congressional boundaries that were approved last week by the Republican-controlled legislature.
Superior Court Judges Graham Shirley, Nathaniel Poovey and Dawn Layton did uphold the new General Assembly districts, confirming their experts' recommendation that statistics associated with the lines show them to "meet the test of presumptive constitutionality."
But on the U.S. House map, the judges wrote, "the court concludes that the remedial congressional plan does not satisfy the Supreme Court's standards." The judges unveiled a new congressional map they adopted.
Barring appeals to the Supreme Court later Wednesday that result in a delay, candidate filing resumes at 8 a.m. Thursday under the new boundaries for the May 17 primary. Candidate filing was suspended in December and the primary delayed from March so lawsuits challenging maps could be tried.
Republicans currently hold eight of the state's 13 U.S. House seats, with North Carolina to gain a 14th seat this decade due to population growth.
The new court-drawn congressional plan, which state law indicates could be used for the 2022 elections only, makes changes that likely would help Democrats in winning a sixth seat, according to Asher Hildebrand, a Duke University politics professor and former congressional aide.
Republicans would be in good shape to win seven seats. And an open seat stretching from parts of Raleigh south into three fast-growing suburban counties likely would be very competitive, Hildebrand wrote in a social media message. These changes would put obstacles in front of national Republicans seeking to win the seat totals needed to win a majority in the chamber next fall.
The congressional map the judges set aside Wednesday appeared to strongly favor a Republican candidate in six districts, while four strongly favored a Democrat. The other four were considered highly competitive.
In a report attached to the ruling, special masters Bob Orr, Bob Edmunds and Tom Ross wrote the interim plan "achieves the partisan fairness and 'substantially equal voting power' required by the Supreme Court" — while meeting other principles, including protecting the rights of Black voters.
Orr and Edmunds are former state Supreme Court justices, while Ross is an ex-trial judge and former University of North Carolina system president.
A 4-3 Supreme Court majority this month overturned maps the Republican-controlled legislature enacted in November, writing that the lines prevented a large bloc of voters that supported Democrats from having a fair opportunity to increase their political influence. The justices said they were partisan gerrymanders that violated the state constitution's free election, freedom of speech and equal protection clauses.
The justices accepted evidence from voters and advocacy groups who sued over the maps that lines were manipulated to make it almost impossible for Democrats, no matter the favorable environment, to earn majorities. In contrast, statewide elections in North Carolina are usually very close.
Lawmakers were given two weeks to draw replacement maps, and GOP leaders said the remedial boundaries increased partisan fairness and met statistical thresholds the Supreme Court suggested could be used to ensure they were constitutionally compliant.
House Speaker Tim Moore, a defendant in redistricting litigation, said he would appeal the panel's decision on the congressional map to the state Supreme Court, calling it "nothing short of egregious," particularly for eliminating competitive races. Senate Republicans did not immediately have a response.
For the approved state House and state Senate maps, Republicans have a slight electoral seat advantage, according to analyses when the lines are overlapped with the results of 12 statewide elections from 2016 and 2020. But Democrats have a path to win majorities in a favorable political year.
The lawsuit plaintiffs — the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters and voters backed by a national Democratic redistricting group — had offered alternate maps for the judges to consider. They told the judges the replacement maps passed last week did not go far enough in eliminating partisan bias.
The plaintiffs emphasized their unhappiness with the U.S. House and state Senate plans, since the state House maps received overwhelming bipartisan support in the General Assembly.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, whose veto stamp does not apply to redistricting maps and who is not a plaintiff, criticized the ruling for allowing the state Senate boundaries to stand.
"Our elections should not go forward until we have fair, constitutional maps," Cooper said in a news release.
The interim congressional map adopted by the judges could make it easier for first-term Democratic Rep. Kathy Manning of Greensboro to return to Congress. But it also could threaten the political future of five-term GOP Rep. Richard Hudson of Concord.