By GARY D. ROBERTSON Associated Press
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — In litigation over North Carolina’s legislative districts, Democrats and election reform advocates contend documents from a Republican redistricting expert show lawmakers misled judges about whether special elections should have been held in 2017 under new district lines.
The charges came as lawyers in the partisan gerrymandering lawsuit now fight over how tens of thousands of files from longtime GOP mapmaker Thomas Hofeller could be used in a trial scheduled next month. Hofeller died last year, but his estranged daughter told the group Common Cause North Carolina about his files, leading its lawyers to subpoena them.
Attorneys for GOP legislators initially didn’t formally attempt to limit or block access to what became over 75,000 files from more than 20 hard drives or thumb drives. After discussions about how to sidestep Hofeller’s personal financial information, a panel of three state judges last month ordered the lawyers for those who sued to provide all the Hofeller documents to the parties in the lawsuit.
Phil Strach, representing the Republican legislators, demanded last week that Common Cause and other plaintiffs stop reviewing the files and giving them to outside parties. The May 31 letter came a day after some of Hofeller’s files gleaned in this case surfaced in a legal showdown over the Trump administration’s efforts to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census.
In response, Stanton Jones, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, wrote Wednesday that the Republicans have no authority to block the use of the documents and “have waived any privilege they may have held over any information on the Hofeller files, several times over.”
Besides, Jones said, those files contain evidence he says shows Republican lawmakers who drew nearly 30 state House and Senate districts previously struck down by federal courts because of excessive racial bias weren’t forthright about Hofeller’s efforts in preparing replacement boundaries.
“Such wrongdoing appears to include false statements made by legislative defendants to federal courts, the Superior Court in this case, and the people of North Carolina,” Jones wrote Wednesday. A separate motion filed Thursday by those who sued, which include the state Democratic Party, asked the state judges to stop Republican efforts to eliminate Hofeller’s files from the case.
Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County, the House’s key Republican on redistricting and a named defendant, on Thursday called the accusations “wild allegations by conspiracy theorists.”
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower federal court ruling in June 2017 and sent it back to the lower court to decide what to do next. That panel of federal judges decided not to require special elections later that year or in early 2018 using remedial maps to fix the racially tinged lines.
GOP legislators had told judges then that they needed ample time to prepare draft maps, and accelerating the timetable could short-circuit public and legislative feedback and could prevent orderly elections. Instead, the judges directed new lines would be used for the next scheduled election in November 2018. Democrats picked up enough seats to end the GOP’s veto-proof majorities and grabbed increased political leverage. Still, most of those new lines used in that election are part of the partisan gerrymandering claims now in state court.
Hofeller’s files, according to Jones, show he had developed numerous draft maps since August 2016, when the districts were first struck down, and had substantially completed replacement plans by June 2017. And while Republican lawmakers decided racial demographic data wouldn’t be used in drawing the approved plans, Hofeller had that information in his computer, Jones wrote.
“We’re learning what we’ve long suspected — North Carolina’s legislative districts were drawn behind closed doors by an expert gerrymanderer, months earlier than lawmakers claimed,” Common Cause North Carolina Executive Director Bob Phillips said in a release.
Lewis said any mapmaking Hofeller was doing was on his own time or performed before he was formally hired as a consultant on the replacement maps, which were approved in August 2017.
“What Mr. Hofeller did or didn’t do prior to me contracting with him to draw the House plan is nothing that I have had any input on, access to or prior knowledge of,” he said. “Dr. Hofeller liked to draw maps. I don’t think that is a crime.”