North Carolina’s redistricting process got underway yesterday with what was supposed to be a joint meeting of the State House and Senate redistricting committees. The House, however, was tied up in session working on a bill to address the State Health Plan when the 3:00 p.m. meeting was scheduled to start, and they did not adjourn until about two hours later. The Senate proceeded on their own in a meeting that began with a somewhat telling and testy exchange between committee chairman Sen. Bob Rucho (R-Mecklenburg) and Minority Leader Sen. Martin Nesbitt (D-Buncombe).
The crux of the dialogue centered on a request made by Sen. Nesbitt to add Sens. Dan Blue (D-Wake) and Dan Clodfelter (D-Mecklenburg) to the Senate Redistricting Committee based on their experience and expertise in past redistricting efforts. According to a prepared statement presented by Sen. Nesbitt, the request had been made more than once to Sen. Rucho and to Sen. President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Rockingham). Nesbitt mentioned that other Democratic committee members had offered to step down to make room for Blue and Clodfelter on the committee, but each time the request was denied. This led Nesbitt to question whether the Senate GOP leadership truly intended to have a “fair and open” redistricting process.
Chairman Rucho explained that committee members had been chosen based on a number of factors including geographic representation around the state and the preference that the committee not be stacked with attorneys, as had been done in the past. In the end, Rucho suggested that the committee makeup would stay as is. (Incidentally, the media is reporting today that Sen. Charlie Dannelly, an African-American Democrat from Charlotte, has announced plans to step down from the Senate Redistricting Committee.)
The Significance… in Anticipation of a Protracted Legal Battle.
The exchange between Sens. Rucho and Nesbitt, while not nearly as emotional and heated as many that take place down on Jones Street, was highly significant for a number of reasons:
1. Sen. Nesbitt, the minority party leader, read a prepared statement into the committee record. This is rarely done at the General Assembly – testimony and statements from legislators are generally made in a much more informal manner. Nesbitt’s statement was deliberate, clearly crafted and presented as if being read by a lawyer (which Nesbitt is) into the records of a legal proceeding (which this is likely to become). From the very start, Senate Democrats are laying the groundwork for a potential legal challenge to the procedures and products of this year’s redistricting process.
2. Sen. Rucho’s response to Nesbitt’s remarks, as well as other statements the chairman made during the committee meeting, were also intentional and carefully worded. Rucho and other GOP leaders have consistently stated that redistricting maps would be drawn in a “fair and legal” manner. The Republican Senate leadership is well aware of the likelihood of potential legal action and is proceeding in a deliberate and measured fashion to make the maps and the process used to draw them as legally defensible as possible.
3. A court reporter (stenographer) was present and recording the deliberations for posterity. In anticipation of legal challenges to the maps and legislative procedures, lawmakers have become accustomed to having redistricting committee proceedings formally recorded.
Sen. Rucho says he hopes redistricting process will be completed by June 1. (For detailed information about redistricting, visit the General Assembly’s 2011 Redistricting page.) If this week’s meeting is any indication of how future redistricting committees will proceed, we can fully expect to encounter a heightened level of formality, heated courtroom-style cross examination, scrutiny of every procedural jot and tittle in committee and on the House and Senate floors, and inspection of the district maps with the finest-tooth comb that can be found.
This may be just the beginning of what could become a protracted legal battle to determine where the district lines fall and which party has the best opportunity secure a majority of seats in our congressional delegation and in the State House and Senate. It’s no wonder the minority party wants to have two of their most seasoned veteran lawyers on the committee, and it’s no wonder why the majority wants to keep them off.
John L. Rustin
March 31, 2011