The prospect of quickly redrawing two of North Carolina’s congressional districts to comply with a federal court order lurched to an uncertain future on Monday. Amid a winter storm that may have hampered attendance, members of a joint legislative redistricting committee held a hearing simultaneously at six places across the state, connected by video conferencing. A seventh site in Greensboro was closed because of the weather. The committee expects to begin redrawing the 1st and 12th congressional districts Tuesday and Wednesday, and then hold a two-day special session for the full General Assembly to vote on them Thursday and Friday – unless the U.S. Supreme Court says they don’t need to. Republican legislative leaders call the process a contingency measure as they hope Chief Justice John Roberts will put on hold a federal three-judge panel’s order that gave the state two weeks to come up with new districts. Roberts has given the plaintiffs, who sued to challenge the districts as racial gerrymanders, until Tuesday afternoon to respond to the state’s motion for a stay. Meanwhile, the three-judge panel’s Friday deadline looms.
Adding to the uncertainty is the unexpected death last weekend of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whom Republicans were counting on to side with them if their appeal is heard. Now the high court is politically split 4-4, and a tie would leave the lower court’s ruling intact.
Monday’s public hearing drew 78 speakers and went on for 5 1/2 hours at the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh and on five college campuses. Most of the speakers repeated arguments on both sides that were familiar and partisan. The legislature’s task this week is to determine how to shape these two districts in a way that satisfies the trio of federal judges, or else the judges will do it for them.
Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from Mecklenburg County who is co-chairman of the legislative redistricting committee, reiterated that legislative mapmakers in 2011 came up with districts that they thought would pass legal muster. “We will exercise all avenues of appeal to see that they remain in place,” Rucho said in a prepared statement at the start of the hearing in Raleigh. “However, because of the compressed timeline imposed upon us by the court, and in light of our ongoing appeal and request for a stay, we think it’s a prudent course to open a public comment process in the event that the maps need to be redrawn.”