RALEIGH — North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper is pushing Republican state legislators to immediately redraw General Assembly districts, now that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed that nearly 30 House and Senate maps are illegal racial gerrymanders.
Cooper on Wednesday called for a special session — to begin today and run simultaneously with the current General Assembly work session — to get new maps drawn. The new governor, who has been embroiled in a power struggle with Republicans controlling the legislature since before he even took office, said if Republicans fail to draw and approve maps soon, a lower federal court will.
“We can unrig this part of the system now,” he told reporters. “Let’s act quickly to restore the trust of the people and take a first important step toward fair elections.”
However, lawmakers are not obligated to draw maps as he requests and could end the session as soon as they gavel it in. GOP leaders portrayed the governor’s action, revealed in a hastily called news conference by Cooper, as theater designed to distract them from performing current work, like passing a two-year state budget.
“This is a clear political stunt meant to deter lawmakers from our work on raising teacher pay, providing relief to the communities affected by Hurricane Matthew and putting money back into the pockets of middle-class families,” state Sen. Ralph Hise and Rep. David Lewis said in a release.
But Cooper said it’s time new boundaries are drawn because the General Assembly has been operating under illegal district lines since 2011. The nation’s highest court this week upheld a lower court ruling throwing out 28 legislative districts. That lower court could decide special elections should be held this fall, using new boundaries.
Cooper said the current districts are the reason North Carolina has seen a hard-right agenda implemented for most of this decade. Cooper cited Republican-approved laws cutting income and corporate tax rates dramatically, creating taxpayer funded grants for students to attend private schools and blocking local gay-rights ordinances through House Bill 2.
“The extreme and damaging laws that they enacted were passed under the dark cloud of a racial gerrymander, Cooper said, adding “the very existence of this legislature is and has been unconstitutional for five years.”
The redistricting case ultimately will be returned to a three-judge panel, which late last year ordered that lawmakers redraw maps in early 2017 and prepare for special elections in the fall, a year before the next regularly scheduled election cycle ended in November 2018.
But the U.S. Supreme Court blocked that order, and on Monday vacated it, saying the federal judges had failed to evaluate properly whether moving up the schedule was warranted. Lawyers for the voters who sued over the districts believe there’s enough time for the judges to reaffirm a 2017 election schedule and late Tuesday asked the Supreme Court to accelerate returning the case to the judges.
Cooper, a former North Carolina attorney general, argued that state law gives legislators only two weeks to act before the judges could step in and draw new lines. His written proclamation, issued late Wednesday, directed the session last two weeks or until new maps are approved.
Republicans, however, counter that state law says the window can be longer, and any clock wouldn’t start until the lower court sends them a new order to redraw the maps.
There also are questions about whether setting a time to adjourn the “extra session” is valid.
“The end date in the proclamation has no legal effect,” said Gerry Cohen, a retired longtime staff attorney at the General Assembly. Cooper spokesman Ford Porter wrote by email late Wednesday that setting the time period for the session “was a practical decision” reflecting the 14-day window.