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Gerrymandering, the courts and Lady Justice

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2019 was only four days old when we got the announcement the U.S. Supreme Court was going to hear arguments on North Carolina’s redistricting lawsuit in March. Once again, our state will be in the political spotlight. In addition to being surprised, how should we interpret this announcement?

Plaintiffs rejoiced, believing the highest court in the land was once and for all going to reaffirm that gerrymandering elective districts so as to favor one party over another disenfranchised voters who belonged to the minority party, thus unconstitutionally dictating election outcomes by violating the First and 14th Amendments, as well as portions of Article 1 of the U. S. Constitution. They want specificity of what is and isn’t unconstitutional gerrymandering.

The state represents the defendants, our legislature, and its leaders were equally happy, convinced the court would once and for all declare that gerrymandering, so long as it wasn’t racial gerrymandering, was permissible.

Last year, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that new congressional districts be drawn in our state, but the Supreme Court declared that the 2016 maps must be used, since the verdict was handed down close to the Nov. 8 election.

North Carolina legislators have been unabashed in their political partisanship, with one leader giddily admitting that his caucus drew maps that would virtually guarantee that 10 of our 13 congressional seats would be held by Republicans. Further, the only reason they didn’t go for 11 or 12 was because they couldn’t figure out how to do it. Having previously been found guilty of racial gerrymandering, they didn’t want to wander into those chilly waters again.

This case will draw nationwide attention for two reasons. Most everyone is hopeful the Supreme Court will finally and definitively spell out what is and isn’t acceptable regarding redistricting. More importantly, this will be the first time since Justice John Kennedy retired and Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in that a redistricting case will be heard. Kennedy was the swing vote who sided with liberals in ruling that partisan redistricting was unconstitutional, a decision that stopped short of providing a litmus test. Now that Kennedy is no longer on the bench, there is widespread speculation about how a clearly Republican and conservative plurality will rule.

North Carolina has been a major player in trying to influence election outcomes, both in drawing congressional and legislative districts as well as in judicial elections. Our legislature, clearly angered by courts that ruled many of its actions unconstitutional, believed the way to correct the situation was to put more Republicans on the bench. To accomplish these goals, lawmakers required that all judicial candidates list their political affiliation on the ballot, then last year did away with judicial primary elections altogether, a move that clearly backfired.

Anita Earls defeated an incumbent Republican justice in the sole state Supreme Court race, giving that court a 5-2 Democratic majority, where it had previously been 4-3. And the Court of Appeals now has an 8-7 Republican edge after three Democrats were elected.

We need reminding of the blindfolded Lady Justice, her blindfold signifying objectivity without fear or favor, regardless of money, power or politics. In her hands she holds scales that weigh decisions based on evidence.

How are those scales measuring justice today?

Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina state treasurer and is creator/host of “N.C. Spin,” a weekly statewide television discussion that airs on the UNC-TV main channel Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. and on the UNC North Carolina Channel Fridays at 10 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and Sundays at 10 a.m. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.

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