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Wednesday, November 22 News

Judges to hire expert to aid evaluating N Carolina districts

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Nine North Carolina legislative districts redrawn by the Republican-controlled General Assembly over the summer still may be unlawful, a federal court said Thursday while announcing it planned to hire an outside expert to evaluate them and possibly retool them again.

A three-judge panel, which last year determined that 28 of the 170 state House and Senate districts approved in 2011 were illegal racial gerrymanders, say problems remain in the latest version of the legislative maps.

In an order signed by one of the judges, the panel identified four districts that lawyers for the voters who sued originally over the 2011 maps argue hadn't been rid of racial bias and five districts the attorneys contend violate the North Carolina Constitution.

"The court is concerned (the districts) either fail to remedy the identified constitutional violation or are otherwise legally unacceptable," the order signed by U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles reads. The order also says the panel will appoint Stanford University law professor Nathaniel Persily as a "special master" to help the judges assess the districts and redraw again them if necessary.

Lawyers for legislative leaders had argued in court documents and in a hearing two weeks ago that the legislative districts approved in late August satisfied the judges' directives and that the court should sign off on them for 2018 elections. They said no racial data were used to help draw the maps.

The boundaries are important because the 2011 districts helped Republicans in subsequent elections expand and retain veto-proof majorities that pushed through a conservative agenda on taxes, education and social issues.

District-by-district statewide election results attached to the latest maps projected Republicans had a good chance to retain their supermajorities in 2018. But redrawing the two Senate districts and seven House districts cites Thursday could improve odds for Democrats to pick up seats and influence. Districts surrounding the nine also would have to be altered.

Eagles cited the upcoming February candidate filing period and the "technical nature" of redistricting for hiring Persily, who has assisted judges drawing districts in New York, Connecticut, Georgia and Maryland.

Eagles gave both sides in the case two business days to express objections to his hiring, if any. He would be paid $500 per hour. The panel, which includes U.S. Circuit Judge Jim Wynn and District Judge Thomas Schroeder, had given the two sides the option to provide names of possible special masters, but they couldn't agree.

The GOP chairmen of the General Assembly's redistricting committees criticized the possibility that the legislature's redistricting powers would be delegated "to a lone professor in California with no accountability to North Carolinians."

Giving only two days to respond to such an order "is an outrageous and extraordinary violation of the principles of federalism and our state's sovereignty," Rep. David Lewis and Sen. Ralph Hise said in a release. They said they were exploring all of their legal options.

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Anita Earls, a lawyer for the voters who initially sued over the districts, said "it has been shown time and again that the state legislature refuses to draw fair districts that comply with the law. Our clients are hopeful that this process will result in fair districts for all North Carolinians."

State Democratic Party Chair Wayne Goodwin called the order "a stunning rebuke of Republican legislators." A spokesman for Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who's had trouble so far blocking the GOP's agenda since taking office in January, separately praised the special master's appointment.

Nearly all of the 2011 districts challenged by North Carolina voters in a lawsuit had majority-black voting age populations.

Critics of the 2011 maps contend black voters were packed in districts so that surrounding districts would be more white and Republican. Republicans said that wasn't their goal, but rather to avoid voting rights litigation by creating majority-black districts when possible.

Earls argued five of the new districts violated the state Constitution's prohibition against mid-decade redistricting because they weren't touching the 28 districts that had been struck down.

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