RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- A North Carolina judicial panel refused Tuesday to throw out redistricting maps drawn by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, rejecting arguments that the lines were illegal because they were politically stacked for the GOP.
The unanimous decision by the three trial judges, which followed a quick trial last week, will be appealed by the advocacy groups and voters -- some backed by a national Democratic group -- who challenged the new congressional and legislative lines in court.
The state Supreme Court, which will have the final say on the maps, had ordered the trial judges to rule by Tuesday, apparently to discourage further delays in the 2022 election schedule.
"At the end of the day, after carefully and fully conducting our analysis, it is clear that plaintiffs' claims must fail," Superior Court Judges Graham Shirley, Nathaniel Poovey and Dawn Layton wrote in the nearly 260-page order.
The Supreme Court justices had already postponed the scheduled March 8 primary to May 17 and suspended candidate filing while the trial judges heard testimony and ultimately received about 1,000 exhibits. Maps would need to be finalized -- whether under the enacted plans or with court-ordered changes -- by Feb. 18 to carry out the May primary, according to the State Board of Elections.
The plaintiffs' witnesses declared the boundaries were manipulated according to the political leanings and the racial composition of voters so that, even in good Democratic years, the GOP could hold 10 of the state's 14 U.S. House seats as well as state House and Senate majorities that are almost unbreakable. That contrasts with North Carolina's statewide elections, which are usually closely divided.
While the trial judges took note of the plaintiffs' evidence of partisanship in the lines from mathematicians and other political researchers, they wrote they could not declare the legislators' actions violated state constitution provisions like those protecting free elections and free speech. They called the redistricting process inherently political and said many of the lawsuits' claims fall outside the scope of legal redress.
One mathematician, Wesley Pegden of Carnegie Mellon University, declared his algorithmic analysis found mapmakers intentionally chose maps crafted more carefully for GOP advantage than at least 99.9% -- and in some cases 99.999% -- of all possible alternatives.
The broad evidence indicates the maps "are a result of intentional, pro-Republican partisan redistricting," the judges wrote.
"This court neither condones the enacted maps nor their anticipated potential results," they added. "Despite our disdain for having to deal with issues that potentially lead to results incompatible with democratic principles and subject our state to ridicule, this court must remind itself that these maps are the result of a democratic process."
Republicans currently hold eight of the state's 13 congressional seats, so the state's GOP remap could help the party take back the U.S. House. North Carolina gained a House seat for the next decade based on population growth in the 2020 census.
Republicans maintain the redistricting process was transparent and prohibited the use of racial and political data. Redistricting is in the purview of the legislature, GOP lawyers said, and a state Supreme Court ruling of the early 2000s said some partisan advantage can be taken into consideration. They accused the plaintiffs of wanting to replace the will of lawmakers with the will of computers and algorithm developers with maps that favor Democrats.
"Free and fair elections are the result of an open and honest process," House Speaker Tim Moore said in a news release praising the decision. "The General Assembly's maps were drawn in the light of day, after months of public comment and feedback."
A panel of trial judges reached a different outcome in 2019, declaring there was evidence that GOP legislators created extreme partisan gerrymanders when drawing U.S. House districts in 2016 and legislative districts in 2017. The legislature redrew those maps. The U.S. Supreme Court had decided earlier in 2019 that it wouldn't get involved in partisan redistricting claims but left the door open for state courts to intervene.
"We are confident that the people of North Carolina will ultimately prevail in our fight for fair maps," Bob Phillips with the state affiliate of Common Cause -- one of the lawsuits' plaintiffs -- said after the ruling's release. Another plaintiff, the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, and an affiliate of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee associated with the case also said appeals were next.
Poovey and Shirley are registered Republicans, while Layton is a Democrat. Four of the seven state Supreme Court justices are registered Democrats, but there are already efforts to have one of the four recuse himself from the redistricting case.
Republicans have asked Associate Justice Sam Ervin IV, a registered Democrat, to stay out of the deliberations because as the only sitting member running for reelection this year, his decisions could create "a situation where his own impartiality may reasonably be questioned," last week's motion read.