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N.C. legislators have a chance at redistricting

By Martin Dyckman • Guest Columnist

The North Carolina General Assembly is where good bills go to die. So it is a sign of progress when one of them gets so much as a hearing. That’s why it made news when House Speaker Tim Moore said that there will be one for House Bill 69, to establish a nonpartisan redistricting commission. 

Cue the drum rolls, the thunder, and the heavenly choruses singing hosannas. North Carolina would no longer be the nation’s most grotesquely gerrymandered state. The voters might actually be allowed to elect the candidates they prefer for Congress and the state legislature. 

To be realistic, the odds against its passage remain colossal. Under its present management, the legislative branch in North Carolina epitomizes what democracy is not. The perennial presiding officers are indistinguishable from dictators — which was once true, of course, under the Democrats. Phil Berger, the Senate boss, remains outspoken against redistricting reform even though he, like Moore, voted for it when the Democrats were in charge.

The current effort has 67 sponsors, including Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, and 13 Republicans. That’s more than a majority of the House. But that has been true of many bills that never even made it onto a committee meeting agenda. 

The leaders need to realize, however, that HB 69 is their best chance, and maybe the only one, to keep the courts from taking redistricting out of their hands. The U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing on the same day next month two challenges to North Carolina gerrymandering along with one attacking what Democrats did in Maryland. A case in our state courts is working its way to the North Carolina Supreme Court, where Democrats now hold a 5-1 majority with one seat remaining for Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to fill. Does Moore’s willingness to let HB 69 be heard imply a concern how the state court may vote?

It should go without saying that no court’s decisions should be partisan. But that’s the principle the Republicans ignored when they tried to weaponize the North Carolina judiciary in their favor. They eliminated matching campaign funds and made judicial races partisan. They axed last year’s judicial primaries, figuring it would help them control the court. They failed to fool the voters with a so-called nonpartisan merit selection amendment that in reality would have put the General Assembly in charge of judicial appointments. 

Rep. Chuck McGrady of Henderson County, one of the four prime sponsors of HB 69, is a Republican who has stuck with redistricting reform over the years. In announcing the bill, he said his colleagues don’t like having judges make redistricting decisions.

The way to avoid judges having to make them is to do redistricting right. That means, among other things, not basing them on how people have voted or on which candidate or party will be helped. HB 69 prohibits that kind of skullduggery.  It calls for a nonpartisan commission which would assign the technical details to a professional staff. The legislature would approve or disapprove the maps but would be inhibited from amending them. 

The best way to keep partisan motives far from the minds of the judges who might have to rule on any future plans is to restore the judiciary to a nonpartisan status and adopt a true merit-selection plan for appointments to vacancies. The long-range goal should be to do away entirely with elections for the appellate bench — and I say that as an active Democrat. 

In a trustworthy system, the governor would appoint three members to nominating commissions. The legal profession would name three. Those six would then select three public members. Florida pioneered this in the South but eventually corrupted it by giving the governor all nine appointments. To prevent that in North Carolina, the necessary constitutional amendment should specify how the commissions would be appointed. 

That sort of court reform may be looking too far ahead. But if the General Assembly’s Republican leaders don’t take districting reform seriously, they might very well see a Democratic Supreme Court take the power away from them. As it should. 

(Martin Dyckman is a retired journalist and the author of several books on Florida politics. He lives in Western North Carolina. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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