Meet the N.C. GOP's latest racket: rigging the state Supreme Court | Citizen | Indy Week

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Meet the N.C. GOP's latest racket: rigging the state Supreme Court



It should be obvious by now that the Republican Party is completely shameless—as in, whatever they do, however corrupt or self-serving, and no matter that it's been exposed and if it were you or I, we'd be humiliated, your Republican professional remains unfazed. In fact, he—it's usually a he—revels in his role as political racketeer.

And what racket are the boys running this time? They're fixing the N.C. Supreme Court to stay in Republican hands regardless of the electorate.

To which you say—and they're counting on you saying—so what? What's the N.C. Supreme Court to me?

Just this: Republican legislators have rigged our state's election laws so they retain their grip on state government even if the Democrats get more votes. The one serious threat to their scheme: The court could order them to stop.

That's why your professional Republicans stepped in with House Bill 222, canceling the 2016 election for a Supreme Court justice—an election that might have resulted in the court shifting from 4-3 Republican control to 4-3 Democratic.

The Republicans whipped HB 222 through to final passage Thursday with almost no one noticing. Expect Gov. Pat McCrory, dutiful Republican, to sign it.

Oh, a few Democratic legislators objected, albeit in too-polite terms. But it wouldn't matter if they screamed bloody murder. Because ... Republicans. Shameless.

Background now, on legislative gerrymandering and a pair of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that went against the Republicans here and in Alabama. But these decisions were preliminary, not final, and for our purposes they funnel back to one Republican fellow: N.C. Supreme Court Justice Robert Edmunds.

First, gerrymandering. That's the method by which the political party in power "packs" the other party's voters into a relatively few election districts, minimizing their clout overall.

It's not a new concept. Except, that is, for the racial gerrymandering aspect, which makes the old stinker reek so much worse.

Example: North Carolina. The Republicans drew the state's legislative districts so that Democratic voters—especially black Democrats—were packed into one-third of the 170 Senate and House districts. This helped Republicans control the other two-thirds. With half the statewide vote, the GOP holds the Senate 33-17 and the House 75-45, as well as 10 of the state's 13 congressional districts.

When North Carolina's gerrymandered districts were challenged in court as racially discriminatory, guess what? The N.C. Supreme Court upheld the Republicans' handiwork by a 4-2 vote, with Edmunds writing the majority opinion for the four GOP justices. Two Democratic justices, Cheri Beasley and Robin Hudson, signed a blistering dissent. (The third Democratic justice, Sam Ervin IV, was elected in November, after the case was argued.)

But then the Republicans got an unpleasant surprise. The U.S. Supreme Court, hardly a bastion of liberalism, rejected a similar, race-based gerrymander from Alabama. Soon, applying the same logic, it rejected the North Carolina gerrymander, telling the N.C. Supreme Court to reconsider the earlier challenge in light of its Alabama ruling.

Put simply, the U.S. Supreme Court is saying that Republicans can't just jam as many black voters as they want into as few districts as they can manage without violating the principle of fair representation under the Voting Rights Act. To Alabama, it said, you went too far. To N.C.: Take heed.

This was bad news for Edmunds, whose eight-year term expires at the end of 2016. He was expected to seek re-election next year, but given that the voters chose three Democratic justices out of four in 2014, and that the 2016 presidential election climate will likely be more favorable for a Democratic challenger, Edmunds was already in some jeopardy. Now, he'd be forced to run uphill, carrying a blot on his record where voting rights are concerned.

Enter HB 222. It creates "retention elections" for sitting Supreme Court justices if they were previously elected against an opponent.

Justices like, uh, Bob Edmunds.

Which is another way of saying that Edmunds will have no opponent next year. Instead, voters will be asked to "retain" him—and if the answer is no, his replacement would be appointed by the governor for a two-year term.

The governor, of course, is McCrory. But even if a Democrat were elected governor in 2016, a lame-duck McCrory could still make the appointment if Edmunds, after being rejected, resigned prior to Dec. 31.

And really, what are the chances the voters will remove an unopposed justice?

The same retention rule will allow Republican Justices Barbara Jackson and Paul Newby to also "run" for "re-election" unopposed in 2018 and 2020, respectively.

Meanwhile, the N.C. Supreme Court is not exactly hustling to rehear the gerrymandering challenge. Ordered on April 20 to do so, it delayed initial arguments until Aug. 31, and it may well remand the case to a lower court for additional findings.

Which, with the heat off Edmunds, could allow the Republican justices to slow-walk racially discriminatory gerrymandering past the '16 elections and all the way to 2020. At which point a new U.S. Census will be taken, and shameless gerrymandering can begin again.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Shameless."

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