This is an op/ed by Ray Starling, general counsel of the N.C. Chamber and president of the N.C. Chamber Legal Institute.
If you’ve sensed an odd process playing out in the redistricting litigation now being decided in North Carolina’s court system, you’re not alone. Under the pretense of removing extremes, our state is codifying a process that encourages both extreme partisanship and extreme uncertainty.
In fewer than ten weeks, the N.C. Supreme Court has received nearly 20,000 pages of filings, dealt with recusal motions involving three of the Court’s seven justices, halted an election for which the filing period was already underway, and directed a lower court to hold a trial which — due to its mere speed — would have created massive Constitutional vulnerabilities if it were a case involving a defendant’s criminal rights, as opposed to the voting rights of millions of North Carolinians.
The oddities don’t stop there.
Our Court of Appeals decided the same case two different ways on the very same day, followed by the N.C. Supreme Court cutting the intermediate appellate court out of the process entirely. The N.C. Attorney General’s office filed two separate briefs – one, oddly, submitted on behalf of a defendant in the case that “takes no position” and the other written to support the plaintiffs. To top it all off, North Carolinians have been flooded with a barrage of ads that can only be described as blatant attempts to lobby, or worse, intimidate Justices on the Court.
This irregular process reached a crescendo when the N.C. Supreme Court recently issued a closely divided order reversing the unanimous decision of a bipartisan three-judge panel which had earlier found North Carolina’s new maps to be permissible under the State Constitution. The Supreme Court sent the legislative branch back to the redistricting drawing board with a directive to create new maps, in a matter of days, to meet clear-as-mud standards.
North Carolina’s Constitution clearly designates the legislative branch as the rightful arbiter over questions of electoral map-making. Our Supreme Court is establishing itself as a second legislative body, made up of seven individuals who cannot be lobbied. For those concerned with money in politics, that reality will attract a level of investment that could soon be unrivaled.
There is no denying that the redistricting process generates strong partisan passions and inevitably impacts some political outcomes. Once settled, however, the process is designed to leave room for crucial policy conversations on topics like the future of infrastructure funding, the calibration of education and talent supply investments, North Carolina’s long-term energy strategy, and the recruitment of new manufacturers to our state.
The NC Chamber has nurtured these conversations for years, as evidenced by the growing list of competitive accolades recognizing our state as one of the best in the nation. And rest assured, we are eager to continue nurturing them with any and all members of our General Assembly, without regard to which party wields the gavels. But to do that constructively, North Carolinians must have confidence in an electoral process that works as it was designed to work. And just to be clear, we would be expressing the same concerns if the parties involved switched sides.
Unfortunately, redistricting has become a perennial pastime for North Carolina – not something that happens once every decade, as outlined in our State Constitution. Our fear is that this will be even more true after this latest ruling, which rewards experimental legal theories and invites new uncertainties that will only take away from the important policy discussions required to maintain and strengthen North Carolina’s position as a national leader for private-sector job growth and a top state to work and live. Our fear is that the oddities have only just begun.