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North Carolina's Supreme Court will hear a key gerrymandering case Wednesday

 The North Carolina Supreme Court building is seen.
NC Courts
The North Carolina Supreme Court building is seen.

The North Carolina Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday morning on whether the Republican-drawn maps for Congress and the General Assembly are constitutional.

The decision from the state’s highest court could come in a week. And it could determine the balance of power in North Carolina for the next decade.

WFAE’s "All Things Considered " host , Gwendolyn Glenn , spoke with WFAE political reporter Steve Harrison about the case.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Steve, so last month , a panel of three state Superior Court judges said the maps in question are the “result of intentional, pro-Republican partisan redistricting.” But they said the state’s constitution doesn’t prohibit gerrymandering and allowed the maps to stand.

Do we expect any new arguments tomorrow?

Steve Harrison: No, there isn’t expected to be much in the way of re litigating this case. Last month , the tr ia l before the three-judge panel took four days. When the case goes before the Supreme Court , each side will have only 45 minutes.

So , the justices will be relying on the 260-page ruling from the panel last month.

And that ruling was interesting in that it said the maps were drawn to favor Republicans, but the judges said the state constitution doesn’t give any guidance as to what’s fair and what isn’t. They also threw out this hypothetical: They asked if , say , Democratic Gov . Roy Cooper’s cabinet should be required to have Republicans in it since Republicans won almost half of the vote in the 2020 governor’s election?

Glenn: Steve, that decision was unanimous. It was from two Republican judges and one Democrat. This time the partisan makeup is different . T here will be four Democratic justices and three Republicans on the state Supreme Court. Do both sides have concerns that politics will play a role in this decision?

 North Carolina Supreme Court Associate Justices Anita Earls, Sam Ervin IV and Phil Berger Jr. are pictured from left to right.
North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts
North Carolina Supreme Court Associate Justices Anita Earls, Sam Ervin IV and Phil Berger Jr. are pictured from left to right.

Harrison: Republicans say privately they expected the state S upreme C ourt to rule against their maps. The question is what will the remedy be? Will the legislature be allowed another chance to re draw them? Will the Supreme Court assign a special master to draw new maps? Will the justices impose toss-up maps proposed by the plaintiffs?

Glenn: Steve, continuing on this idea of politics at play , the justices’ backgrounds and potential conflicts have really become a huge story leading up to tomorrow, right?

Harrison: That’s right. So Democrats and the plaintiffs have said that Republican J ustice Phil Berger Jr. should recuse himself because his father , Phil Berger , is the most powerful member of the state Senate and was instrumental in drawing the maps.

They say that conflict is really close to home, right?

Glenn: And on the other side, Republicans have also questioned whether two Democratic justices should be a part of this case, is that right?

Harrison: They have, yes. Republicans have been mostly targeting J ustice Anita Earls. The legislative leadership has been sending out daily news releases highlighting what they say are biased t weets she made against Republicans before being elected to the court in 2018. And they note that she received more than $200,000 in campaign contributions from the political wing of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. That is the group founded by former Obama ad minis tration A ttorney G eneral Eric Holder that seeks fair maps.

Another Democrat targeted is Sam Ervin IV. He is the only sitting member up for re election this year, and the GOP says that the court — and Ervin — are making decisions about when the primary election will be. They say that impacts who can run against him in a primary. The idea is that potential opponents don’t know when the primary would be held.

Glenn: And the issue of justices on the North Carolina Supreme Court recusing themselves has gained national attention , with at least one political group getting into the mix. What’s happening there, Steve?

Harrison: The Republican State Leadership Committee, which works to elect Republicans at the state and local level, has even released an ad targeting Ervin , giving this court case the feel of a regular, nasty campaign. Here’s a bit of that ad.

Advertisement (recording): But if liberal judge Sam Ervin was you’re referee, you’d boo him off the field. Ervin already ruled in a case that could help his reelection. Now he’s refusing to step aside in a case that could keep Pelosi in power.

Harrison: So you heard U .S . Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi mentioned. That’s because across the country, Republicans and Democrats are fighting over different c ongressional maps trying to tilt the balance of power in the House ahead of November’s election. So if Democrats can go from , say , f our seats in North Carolina to five or six seats , that makes it easier for them to hold on to their majority.

Democrats are also fighting tilted Republican maps in places like Texas and Georgia.

And Democrats aren’t giving in. They have created some gerrymandered maps in places like Illinois and Maryland. And just this week they proposed a map in New York state that would give them the edge in 22 of 26 House seats. Democrats could wipe out four Republican seats in New York alone.

Glenn: And as I understand , the justices have all said no, they won’t recuse themselves.

Harrison: The justices spoke for themselves on Monday and said, " N ope, we aren’t removing ourselves. "

Earls pointed to then - A ssociate J ustice Paul Newby not being recused a decade ago in a redistricting case even though he had received campaign funds from the Republican State Leadership Committee. That’s the same group that released the ad targeting Ervin.

Ervin said other justices have not recused themselves in past redistricting cases when also running for re election. And Berger’s order didn’t offer a specific reason. He just wrote that he’s not stepping aside.

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