RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina's latest round of redistricting litigation got its first day in court Friday as a bevy of lawyers argued before a three-judge panel whether a trial on the legality of new Republican-penned political boundaries be fast-tracked before candidates file in two months.
Attorneys representing dozens of Democrats and advocacy groups who sued over the legislative and congressional district maps asked the judges to require a timetable that would set a trial in early February, about three months after lawsuits were filed. The candidate filing period begins Feb. 13 for the May 8 primary.
The two lawsuits, which the judges consolidated Friday into one case, allege the district lines illegally bunch more black voters within districts to decrease their electoral power, cross too many county boundaries and split too many precincts. They want the judges to order new maps drawn for the 2012 elections and have suggested the boundaries in last year's elections could be used if needed.
The political stakes are high. The GOP-favored maps, if upheld, would be used through 2020 and could help the party extend its new majority in the legislature and improve its chances for taking up to four more seats in Congress.
"We believe that these constitutional violations are so serious that it would be a stain on North Carolina for us to have an election under these maps," said Adam Stein, an attorney representing the state chapter of the NAACP.
Federal authorities have already approved the maps.
The lawsuits would cause disruption and uncertainty among candidates and likely 2012 voters if the accelerated schedule is approved, Special Deputy Attorney General Alec Peters told the judges. The state, which is defending the maps, wants more time – perhaps four months – to collect evidence and depositions and for judges to hear motions in a case involving several dozen plaintiffs.
"What they propose cannot help but result in the disruption of the election. There's no way to avoid it," Peters said.
Besides, he said, even with a fast-track plan whichever side loses likely will appeal to the state Supreme Court, almost assuredly leading to a primary delay. In the meantime, he said, the new maps should be used in 2012, and if any new maps are eventually required, they could be redrawn before the 2014 elections.
"These are the acts of the legislature. They are presumed to be constitutional. They're presumed to be valid until the plaintiffs carry their burden before the court of showing otherwise," he said.
Superior Court judges Paul Ridgeway of Wake County, Alma Hinton of Halifax County and Joseph Crosswhite of Iredell County didn't immediately rule on the schedule and didn't give an indication when they would.
State law requires trial judges to sit in groups of three to consider redistricting challenges, and Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Parker appointed the panel. While judges participate in nonpartisan elections, two of the three judges on the panel are registered Democrats.
Ridgeway, considered the chief of the panel, said the schedule offered by those suing "would be an extraordinary timetable."
The case isn't as complex as the state would indicate, said Eddie Speas, a former chief deputy attorney general who sat in Peters' seat defending redistricting maps 10 years ago and filed one of the lawsuits considered Friday. There are basically three points of contention, and most facts should not be in dispute between the two sides.
"We recognize that it is an ambitious schedule," he said, but "we believe that it's the trip that should be taken."
Peters, who worked with Speas defending the 2001 maps, said the lawsuits would be easier to manage if only one or two items were at issue, which he said was the case 10 years ago. That's when Republicans won litigation that focused upon whether the state constitution's requirement that the number of counties split between two or more districts are minimized.
This year's litigation involves 48 House and Senate districts and four congressional districts and hundreds of split precincts that involve nearly 2 million people, or 27 percent of the voting-age population.
The Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, said after the hearing that the state's argument seems to suggest elections should continue under constitutionally flawed maps when there are more problems alleged, not fewer.
So "if you find they're unconstitutional, you don't remedy it now, you remedy later," Barber said. "That's absurd."
He suggested that the judges order the state to use its current voting maps for 2012 while the new ones make their way through the courts.
"We should not have an election under this kind of constitutional cloud hanging over our redistricting process. That should not happen in North Carolina for anybody for any reason," he said.
Ridgeway suggested the case could be moved along with rulings on other motions before trial, such as a motion by the state to dismiss the litigation. Hinton said the plaintiffs also could ask the panel to block the maps from being used leading up to the trial. Neither judge said how they would rule on those matters.