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North Carolina judges grapple with defining 'fair' elections in redistricting suit

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North Carolina judges grapple with defining 'fair' elections in redistricting suit
News

News

North Carolina judges grapple with defining 'fair' elections in redistricting suit

2024-06-14 07:03 Last Updated At:07:10

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina judges deciding whether a redistricting lawsuit claiming a state constitutional right to “fair" elections can go to trial questioned Thursday their ability to scrutinize district boundaries that way or to define what “fair” means.

A panel of three trial judges listened to arguments on a motion by Republican legislative leaders to have the lawsuit filed against them by several voters dismissed. The judges did not immediately rule from the bench, but two of them peppered the voters' lead lawyer with questions about what his clients were specifically seeking.

The legislators' attorney said the lawsuit was already short-circuited by a 2023 state Supreme Court ruling that found judges lacked authority to declare redistricting maps are illegal partisan gerrymanders.

It's one of at least four lawsuits filed in North Carolina to challenge boundaries drawn by the GOP-dominated General Assembly last fall for use in elections through 2030 that favor Republicans electorally. Three have been filed in federal court and claim illegal racial gerrymandering. Two of those lawsuits are scheduled for trial next year. A federal appeals court in March sided for now with Republicans in a third lawsuit involving two state Senate districts.

Bob Orr, a former Supreme Court justice representing the voters, said this lawsuit takes a different tack than those filed by Democrats and their allies that ultimately led to the high court’s declaration that redistricting was a political matter the judiciary must stay out of, save for challenges on specific limitations. The justices also affirmed that lawmakers can consider partisanship in mapmaking.

The lawsuit says there is an implicit unwritten right within the state constitution to fair elections, citing specific language in the constitution that "elections shall be often held” and that “all elections shall be free.” The state lawsuit wants several congressional and General Assembly districts redrawn, saying they are representative of legislators' efforts to shift lines in otherwise competitive districts to preordain electoral outcomes that will favor one side — which now are Republicans.

“What good is a free election if it’s not a fair election?” Orr asked. “What good are frequent elections if the results are preordained and the value of the citizens’ participation as a voter in electing officials is a done deal before they ever even get to the ballot box?”

Phil Strach, a lawyer for the Republican legislative leaders, told the judges that the April 2023 ruling by the state Supreme Court halts lawsuits like those considered Thursday, which he called “legal gobbledygook.” Elections in the state already are fair, Strach added.

“The state Supreme Court has slammed the door shut on this court being the eye of the beholder on what is fair or not fair in a redistricting map," Strach said in urging its dismissal. ”They have slammed that door shut, and it should stay permanently closed."

Superior Court Judge Jeffery Foster of Pitt County asked Orr for a definition of fair. Orr responded that fair means equitable, impartial and something that doesn't favor one side or the other. Foster asked whether it made more sense to simply seek a statewide referendum to amend the state constitution to make plain that elections must be fair. However, referendums can't happen without legislative approval.

Superior Court Judge Angela Puckett of Surry County questioned how fairness would be quantified, since Orr said it did not mean that all candidates in every legislative and congressional district had the same chance to win.

“I just don’t understand what you are asking for,” Puckett asked. Orr, a former Republican candidate for governor who is now an unaffiliated voter, said that redistricting is a complicated process that would require collecting evidence in a trial.

“Give us a chance to make our case,” Orr said.

Superior Court Judge Ashley Gore of Columbus County the other panelist along with Foster and Puckett, are all registered Republicans. Chief Justice Paul Newby, a Republican who wrote the prevailing opinion in the 2023 redistricting ruling, chooses three-judge panels to hear such constitutional challenges like these. Last year's ruling by the GOP majority on the Supreme Court reversed a 2022 decision by the state's highest court when it had a Democratic majority.

FILE - The North Carolina state House reviews copies of a map proposal for new state House districts during a committee hearing at the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023. North Carolina judges deciding whether a redistricting lawsuit claiming a state constitutional right to “fair" elections can go to trial questioned Thursday their ability to scrutinize district boundaries that way or to define what “fair” means. (AP Photo/Hannah Schoenbaum, File)

FILE - The North Carolina state House reviews copies of a map proposal for new state House districts during a committee hearing at the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023. North Carolina judges deciding whether a redistricting lawsuit claiming a state constitutional right to “fair" elections can go to trial questioned Thursday their ability to scrutinize district boundaries that way or to define what “fair” means. (AP Photo/Hannah Schoenbaum, File)

PLAINFIELD, Vt. (AP) — Vermont is seeking an assessment to determine whether last week’s flooding, which damaged homes, knocked down bridges and washed out roads, qualifies for a federal disaster declaration and aid.

The flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Beryl happened a year after the state experienced catastrophic flooding that left some victims still awaiting home buyouts or repairs.

“We know this storm has done tremendous damage in many communities, and those impacted will need help to recover," Gov. Phil Scott said in a statement Saturday. “That’s why it’s so critical for Vermonters to report their damage to help us demonstrate the need for these federal resources.”

Two people were killed by the flooding, including a motorist in Lyndonville and a man who was riding an all-terrain vehicle in Peacham, authorities said.

Some of the hardest-hit riverside communities were Barre, Hardwick, Lyndonville, Moretown and Plainfield, but the estimated $15 million in damage to roads and other public infrastructure was more widespread. Damage assessments will be done in eight of Vermont's 14 counties. A public assistance disaster declaration would provide 75% reimbursement to communities for responding to and repairing public infrastructure damaged by the storm, the governor said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency must verify at least $1.1 million in response and public infrastructure recovery costs for the state to qualify for a major disaster declaration, according to Scott. For counties to qualify, they must show damages of $4.60 per capita, Scott's office said.

An individual assistance declaration would give some financial assistance to homeowners and renters for property losses, the governor said. They are encouraged to report property losses by calling 211 or visiting www.vermont211.org.

Even though Vermont is an inland state, it's suffered damage from tropical storm systems. In 2011, Tropical Storm Irene dumped 11 inches (28 centimeters) of rain on parts of the state in 24 hours. The storm killed six in the state, washed homes off their foundations and damaged or destroyed more than 200 bridges and 500 miles (800 kilometers) of highway.

In May, Vermont became the first state to enact a law requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a share of the damage caused by extreme weather fanned by climate change. But officials acknowledged last week that collecting any money will depend on litigation against a much-better-resourced oil industry.

Signs are displayed outside the town hall, Sunday, July 14, 2024, in Plainfield, Vt., a community that had some of the worst damage in last week's flooding. (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke)

Signs are displayed outside the town hall, Sunday, July 14, 2024, in Plainfield, Vt., a community that had some of the worst damage in last week's flooding. (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke)

FILE - The remains of an eight unit apartment building that locals call the Heartbreak Hotel are in Plainfield, Vermont, on July 12, 2024, after flood waters and debris caused by the aftermath of Hurricane Beryl pulled several of the apartments into the Great Brook waterway. Vermont is seeking a federal assessment to determine whether last week’s flooding, which damaged homes, knocked out bridges and washed out roads, qualifies for a federal disaster declaration and aid. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey, file)

FILE - The remains of an eight unit apartment building that locals call the Heartbreak Hotel are in Plainfield, Vermont, on July 12, 2024, after flood waters and debris caused by the aftermath of Hurricane Beryl pulled several of the apartments into the Great Brook waterway. Vermont is seeking a federal assessment to determine whether last week’s flooding, which damaged homes, knocked out bridges and washed out roads, qualifies for a federal disaster declaration and aid. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey, file)

FILE - An overwhelmed residents surveys the damage following flooding caused by the remnants of Hurricane Beryl, July 11, 2024, in Plainfield, Vt. Vermont is seeking a federal assessment to determine whether last week’s flooding, which damaged homes, knocked out bridges and washed out roads, qualifies for a federal disaster declaration and aid. (AP Photo/Dmitry Belyakov, file)

FILE - An overwhelmed residents surveys the damage following flooding caused by the remnants of Hurricane Beryl, July 11, 2024, in Plainfield, Vt. Vermont is seeking a federal assessment to determine whether last week’s flooding, which damaged homes, knocked out bridges and washed out roads, qualifies for a federal disaster declaration and aid. (AP Photo/Dmitry Belyakov, file)

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